Saturday, January 30, 2010


There's a process to writing that intrigues me; it's called revising. Just when you think you've got it down, there's just that one more little thing--or sometimes a whole bunch of things--that could make it even better. The same thing happens in song writing; a half note might need to become two quarter notes so you can add an extra word.

In my post, Let Me Introduce You, dated 9/11/09, I mentioned a character from my story Paddle, and in Life as Fiction, 10/2/09 I posted an excerpt from that story. As I frequently do, I ran the story by an editor who wanted a “hook,” a reason to care about this young girl and how life would hone her over time. I’ve added a prologue to give you a little back story. My hope is that it will make you want to turn the page, begin the next chapter.

“Leastwise you’ll be cooler down there,” seven year old Paddle whispered to her Aunt Seraphine as the grave diggers slowly lowered the polished oak casket. The smell of musty earth, like a basket of mushrooms, wafted up from the dark hole.

With her knuckle Paddle wiped at a trickle of sweat mixed with a tear or two as it slid down her cheek. She looked at the handful of mourners, gathered around the small family plot, wilting in the Louisiana mugginess along with the flowers placed at the head of the grave. Preacher Marcus, Doc Lester, Ginny and Benji Hawk, Deputy Sheriff Higgins, and four old women from Aunt Seraphine’s quilting group sang the last refrain of “Amazing Grace.”

Paddle knew about planting people. It started when she was just a little kid, four years old, when her momma and daddy got killed by a logging truck run amok. Then Grandma, who’d taken her in, died of the bad lungs. Aunt Seraphine had moved in to take care of Paddle and Grandpa until he shot himself out in the timber while hunting rabbits. Paddle never could wrap her thoughts around that one.

Three days ago, she went into the kitchen for a glass of water and Aunt Seraphine was crumpled on the floor looking sort of gray. Heart just gave out, Doc Lester had said.

“It’s all right; I’m a big girl now. I can take care of myself,” she’d said to Doc, who had pulled her into a big old bear hug then driven her over to Ginny Hawk’s just down the bayou.

“’Course I’ll take her in,” Ginny said, her voice all gruffed up with love and sadness. “She’ll be the big sister Benji’s never gonna get any other way.” And that had been it; she was officially part of the Hawk family.

“Benji, don’t you touch those cupcakes in the display case; I mean it,” Ginny admonished Paddle’s five year old new brother a week later. “Paddle, grab that coffee pot over there and fill up Deputy Sheriff Higgins’ cup, will you?” She shooed Daemon the cat out of the puddle of sunlight where he’d curled up right in the middle of the Blue Hawk Diner.

It was good to feel useful and earn her keep. Paddle got all saucer-eyed when Sheriff Higgins left her a quarter and said she’d make a right fine waitress.

Ginny spread her arms wide to take in the whole cafĂ© and said in a voice that made the Deputy Sheriff chuckle, “Some day all this will be hers.

“Benji, stop spinning on that stool; it’s going to make you hurl,” Ginny shouted back over her shoulder. She laid out some paper and crayons at one of the booths and settled him there. “Thanks, Mike,” she called to Mr. McPhenson who’d left a handful of bills next to the cash register for his Southern Comfort Breakfast Special.
* * *
This is how life went, year after year; daily chats with the locals, catching up on the latest gossip, a few foreign visitors from out of state with their funny accents who used words like quaint and delightful. On the first of every month, Ginny would sit down with Paddle and make up a “special” and show her how to price it out so they wouldn’t lose their shirts on it.

Calendar pages kept turning and a decade passed. To Paddle, it looked like this was the life she was destined to live. It wasn’t a bad life working at the diner after school, but when those foreigners talked of places like the Rocky Mountains with their deep canyons, or the lake in Utah that was so salty you couldn’t sink, or even the gold coast of California that sat right there on the Pacific ocean, the travel bug bit at her like a swarm of mosquitoes. “Might as well put that dream to rest,” Paddle would tell herself as she moved from booth to booth refilling the salt and pepper shakers.

Then Lucas arrived.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Small Miracles and Metaphors

It has been raining for weeks in my neck of the woods. My cells feel saturated. This time of year usually puts me in an introspective frame of mind where my thoughts just string themselves together like prayer beads.

The other day I watched a crow peck at a nut that it had dropped to the ground from an overhead telephone wire, watched as it craftily maneuvered the shell with claw and beak to reach the meat inside. It was a miraculous success; I wanted to applaud.

I remembered a quote from Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones. She said: “Even miracles are mundane happenings that an awakened mind can see in a fantastic way.” This week I offer my thoughts about small miracles in the form of birds and feathers.

For as far back as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued by feathers. I was two when I met my first spirit guide, a mythical bird-like creature I called Snigwig. It lived in our side yard, and I watched its five legged, blue feathered, saddled body from the arm of the couch next to the living room window. My family received my stories about my new friend and our adventures together with the bemused indulgence often afforded children without siblings. The only other person who reported seeing this special being was the town drunk. I’m not sure he was telling the truth, but he’s dead now, so I can’t ask.

I no longer remember when I stopped seeing this guide, but birds have continued to bring me comfort, joy, courage, and support.

Birds are the connectors between the heavens and the earth--flying in the ether, walking on earth, and living in the trees in between, grounding spirit to earth. Their feathers are magical metaphorical gifts. When I find a downy little feather, I’m reminded to be gentle with myself, to take little steps, to know that it’s okay to be a babe in the woods. Big feathers remind me of my power and my ability to soar like a raven, to see life from a broader perspective.

Each time I take a walk along the creek or in the woods, I come back with a special gift of a feather; it has happened with such regularity that I no longer question it. Often I find a feather waiting for me just as I reach a turn-around point in my walk. One step short and I wouldn’t have seen it half buried just off the path. Occasionally the feather is lying in a tiny patch of sun, and its sparkling iridescence catches my eye. In the next moment, as the sun spot fades, all that remains visible is a patch of leaves and twigs.

There are times a feather seems placed right in my path. Once as I followed the creek path near the water, I found an owl feather projecting from the top of a cattail, nose high from the ground, gently swaying about in the breeze. Feathers have drifted down in front of me from trees, floated over to me while I squatted by the creek, and with a different magic, given by friends who know this proclivity of mine.

The type of feather is significant. When I stray from serenity and am caught up in the busyness of life, a pure white Crane feather comes my way. If you’ve watched a crane you know the focused, patient, and serene feeling it conveys.

When I’m in touch with the intuitive, magical side of my nature, a shiny black raven feather appears and reminds me of the laws of nature, the psychic realm, shape shifting, and being in two places at once.

Not long ago I wandered along the path near a creek, feeling very small and vulnerable. I bent to straighten my sock and found the tiniest piece of baby fluff, a black pin feather, the owner of which I could not place. It was so absolutely sweet, delicate and child-like that it reminded me that I am perfect just the way I am, however small and vulnerable I may feel.

Another day while walking through vineyards, awe-filled by the astounding beauty of a pre-autumn California morning, I breathed the heady fragrance of lush purple grapes. As I bent to pick a small cluster of juicy grapes, I found at my feet a double feather of the palest beige, variegating into dark brown, ribbed with gold highlights and flecks of grey. It was soft, billowy, stunning to behold, and very reflective of the beauty of this area where I live. That feather sits on my altar next to my bed, and when I forget for a moment that life is beautiful, a quick glance at that wondrous feather restores my faith.

The notion of specific lessons or gifts to be gleaned from particular birds intrigues me.

I sat on a large piece of driftwood on a deserted beach. The overcast early February sky and the glassy water beyond the breaking waves were the same indistinguishable silver gray. The Pacific Ocean rumbled in and out; it frothed and sputtered and crashed about in a way that irritated me. Everything irritated me. For a month, I’d tried and failed to complete a particular task and I was in a dour mood. I had come to the beach to find peace of mind, and it wasn’t working.

I saw a dense dark cloud moving at an alarming rate from North to South. I squinted myopically as this cloud mass approached, and realized that it was a flock of pelicans coming to land not far from where I sat.

In a flurry of squawks and flapping wings, these larger than life birds with their immense wing spans, swooped down and lit in the wet sand of the receding tide. The unlikelihood that anything as big and bulky as a pelican, let alone a flock of them, could actually become airborne again without effort was belied by their just as sudden departure en masse.

In that moment, I felt a little more optimistic at the likelihood of completing my own task. I mean, it wasn’t as hard as becoming airborne. I walked over to an object protruding from the sand before the next wave would carry it off, and retrieved a stately gray-brown pelican feather—just a reminder of the moment.

When I open myself to the special messages of birds and their feathers as they cross my path, my life is enriched.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Overheard Conversations

I know I’ve dedicated this blog to creativity, and perhaps overheard conversations don’t seem to fit the category, but where do you think the inspiration for a lot of fiction comes from? To a writer, everything is fair game.

Walking in the Woods
I’m walking briskly through the redwood forest on a beautiful summer morning. Ahead I spot two women, dressed in baggy jeans and sweatshirts ambling along the path. Not wanting to slow my stride to stay a respectful distance behind them, I break into a trot and jog on by. As I pass, I hear the apparent end of a conversation.

“…so, I tossed a rump roast and some veggies in the crock. Handful of garlic, too. Tasted real good, but it gave George the diarrhea.”

“Mmmm. Aren’t those the most beautiful trees ever?”

Definition of Rhetorical Question
A middle aged woman is dressed in a tartan cape that matches the pattern of her doggie’s sweater. The doggie, a beagle pup, sits stubbornly on the sidewalk, ignoring the taut leash and her owner’s obvious consternation.

The woman steps off the curb and squats in the street, eye level with the pup. She leans forward and earnestly asks, “Why are you acting like this?”

Wish I Were You
Basking in the afterglow of my early morning workout at Curves, I wave goodbye to the desk attendant and step out into a slice of September sun, pausing for a moment of sensate pleasure.

As I head toward my ancient blue Honda, I note another gym-goer pull up in her shiny new silver Explorer. The middle-aged woman climbs laboriously out of her car and grimaces at the world as she beeps the lock gadget. She tugs at and rearranges her matching baby blue Lycra exercise outfit. She reminds me of a pigeon preening.

Although a warm stiff breeze rustles the leaves of crepe myrtle overhead and lifts the edges of my sweaty tee shirt, her well-lacquered hair holds fast to its helmet shape. Determination lines her face as she marches purposefully toward the gym. She nods briskly as she notes my leave-taking, and mumbles, “I wish I were you,” as she pushes herself through the door for her thirty minute workout.

Now, I know, in context what she meant was she wished she were finishing her workout, like me. I couldn’t help but chuckle at how astounded she would have been to suddenly experience herself as a sixty-three year old lesbian mom/grandmother/writer/therapist/composer/actor that lives alone on a meager income in a large one-room rental with a stuffed raven perched on her computer for a companion.

Ah, the things that fall out of people’s mouths.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Waiting for the Other Shoe

One thing I’ve noticed about the human condition is that we spend an abundance of time and energy on anticipatory dread—worrying about those things that haven’t actually happened, but could. The “what ifs” often inform and occasionally rule our lives to the point of paralysis.

While I have great compassion for the actualities of life that are truly dreadful, and the preparation required to face the unknown with some degree of calm, I gently poke fun—mostly at myself—at the undue stress we put ourselves through preparing for those things that, in all likelihood, aren’t going to happen.

8:30 a.m. Surreal is the word that comes to mind. It’s like watching a Fellini or Bergman film where I know something strange is happening, but I can’t quite figure out what it is.

The overhead fluorescent lights cast an eerie translucent glow across the linoleum floor of the outer lobby. I stop abruptly at the plate glass double door and survey the scene before I push one door ajar just enough to slip my body through. Not a soul in sight save the sleepy looking clerk behind the long gray Formica counter which was heavily laden with informational posters in primary colors.

This never happens. Where are my fellow Americans? This is the U. S. Post Office, for god sake! Where are the lines? Where are the children wailing from boredom, running amok while haggard parents yell futile dictates like ‘get back here,’ and the frail elderly shift their weight from one bunioned foot to the other? Where are the harassed business folks glaring at their expensive watches, mumbling in irritation?

Filled with suspicion, I slowly approach the middle-aged clerk in a white shirt and navy blue tie who stifles a yawn behind his hand, smiles, and says, “Good morning. How may I help you?”

I fight the urge to ask if I’m in the right place. With a furtive look over my shoulder—I expect a restless crowd to suddenly have materialized—I clip my words for speed and efficiency.

“Stamps, those,” I point to my choice from the laminated sample card.

“Anything else for you today?” he asks pleasantly.

“No. Thanks,” I add, after the fact. I plop my money on the counter, scoop up my stamps and hurry out of the lobby.

I have allowed twenty minutes for this three minute transaction. I’m ahead by seventeen minutes.

Safe, back inside the predictable world of my little Honda, I make a quick U-turn. No traffic. Truly weird.

There is a traffic light on each of the seven blocks between the Post Office and my office. Every one of them turns green as I approach.

“Uh huh, gonna be one of those days, is it?” I try to trick the lights by slowing down or speeding up between corners, to no avail. This is making me very nervous.

Now, with an extra twenty-two minutes, I pull into the parking lot behind my office, and prepare to deliver my usual tirade against the sadistic secretary in the upstairs office who delights in taking my favorite parking spot under the bay tree next to the dumpster.

The spot is empty. All right. Enough already. Let’s just get it over with, whatever it turns out to be.

I spend my work day waiting for the other shoe to drop. I have trouble concentrating. I hang back at the water fountain—the one that squirted water up my nose last week and drenched my new silk blouse. I motion a co-worker to go ahead of me, like I’m Ms. Manners. Wouldn’t you know? Someone fixed it.

My paranoia mounts with every memo that is delivered to my desk. I just know one of them is going to say, “Hello, you’re fired. Have a nice day.” But no. Instead we’re reminded to use our vacation time before the end of the year. And, there’s an office softball team forming for those who are over 40—sign up sheet is in the lounge.

My nerves are raw as I end my day at 6p.m. Any moment now, I just know it.

Back in my Honda, I pull out of the parking lot and onto the main street. Lo, here it is. Told ya so. Too good to be true.

Flap, flap, flap, flap...

Now, I know the sound of a flat tire when I hear it. I ease my car to the side of the street and turn off the ignition. Smiling with confidence, I get out and look for the offending tire. “Good thing I have AAA,” I congratulate myself.

Overhead, the flap, flap, flap continues. I look up to see a traffic helicopter hovering. Good grief.

Home, finally. At 7p.m. the phone rings. No one but a telemarketer would call on the dot of 7p.m.

“Hello!” I bark into the phone, clearly conveying that I’m in no mood for a sales pitch.

“Hey Jo, it’s Sus.” The sound of my sister’s voice calling from the other coast is a balm to my ear.

“Sus? Everything okay? Shouldn’t you be asleep by now?”

“Everything’s is fine. Just calling to say hello. You sound like you’ve had a difficult day.”

“You can tell, huh?” I say, glad that someone understands.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

On Music, Magic, and Memories

Recently I went to the philharmonic orchestra with a friend to hear Grieg's piano Concerto in A Minor. If you're not familiar with it, I swear it's the reason the grand piano was invented!

The first time I heard the Concerto, I was 14. My mother took me and a friend to the Civic Music program they had in our small hometown in Iowa—a noble attempt to bring culture to our neck of the woods. We went that evening to hear a very young (27, I think) Van Cliburn play.

Our seats were third row center, eye level with his elbow. I could see his fingers hit every key. He played with such unleashed passion that he actually broke the skin on the middle finger of his right hand. It bled. I was horrified, and thrilled. He kept on playing, intermittently wiping his hand on the leg of his pants. The music built; my heartbeat quickened until I thought my teenage self would die of excitement.

We stood in line for half an hour after the performance to get an autograph. As he signed my program, Van Cliburn asked if I played the piano. My mouth hung open in awe; I couldn't speak. I nodded my head yes, then no (how could I claim to play the piano after what I’d just witnessed?), and then shrugged my shoulders.

Dumbfounded, speechless; that's the effect that particular piece of music has on me even these many, many years later. I am humbled by the creative force that wrote itself into existence through the composer and played itself so unforgettably through a young up-coming genius. Now I struggle when I’m asked if I compose music. Well, yes…no…sort of. Shrug.