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?