Saturday, December 24, 2011

Second Bloom

It’s December, the month I sit down with my current calendar and transfer notes, birthdays, reminders onto the pages of the new year’s calendar. The space heater is on, the steam rises from a cup of ginger tea that sits next to a warmed-up biscuit on an antique plate from my grandmother—the one with tiny pink roses circling the edge. The sky is blue, and deceptively sunny. No warmth reaches the ground.

I’m on July, 2012 now, and in careful lettering with my special blue-ink pen, I write “Wisteria, 2nd bloom,” on the calendar page. I smile in anticipation as I mark this reminder that summer will come again, regardless of the weather at the moment. I feel excitement knowing that next July I will inhale the scent of these beautiful clusters of fragrant purple blossoms that will drip from the greenery overhead, just outside my window.

I have two azalea plants. One blooms in the spring, big, bright, beautiful red blossoms. This I’ve marked in May. The other, with smaller, perfect pink petals, blooms mid-September. Why? I haven’t a clue. I planted them the same time in celebration of a novella I had just published, Waltzing With the Azaleas. The flowers continue to bloom—the book has stopped selling. Such is life.

The days, months, years go so much faster now than once they did. Babies are born, friends and family die, the cycle of life spins along as it did before I arrived, and as it will after I’m gone. I’ve buried both parents, an event I spent the better part of a lifetime dreading. From the vantage point of being old(er) myself now, it wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated. There’s an order to life, and death is part of it.

The leaves have mostly all dropped like deflated parachutes from the trees that border my cottage. With sadness, I remember a story about someone waiting to die until the last leaf falls from the tree. I can’t remember how it ends, but the poignancy stays with me—I keep thinking that someone glued the last leaf, but the person died anyway. Some things are unavoidable, despite our best attempts at controlling circumstances.

And, as the leaves drop, turn brown, and become mulch, the new pale green buds on my lilac bush dare to raise their heads in careless optimism. As the last of my basil blackens in the early morning frost, the primary colors of the primrose defiantly beam their radiance up at me from their terra cotta pots, undaunted by the winter wind and rain, or the expectations of the season.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

At The Whim of the Muses

Some writer friends and I were talking about what drives us to write. We agreed that for whatever reason, we cannot not write, but the motivations were varied. For one writer, there are definite stories she wants to tell. Crafting the storyline, inter-weaving the plots is ultimately satisfying for her. For another, he wishes to create an income doing something he loves—something he’s proud of. He searches for stories that have not been told, many times the behind the scene stories of a headline news article.

We agreed that there were probably as many reasons to write, as writers. “And you?” they ask me.

It seems that I am at the whim of the muses. I write stories out of the universal consciousness as the characters call to me. For one of my novellas, I was shown a mental picture of a small boy standing in front of a mirror, drizzling strands of Christmas tinsel over his head to make him a beautiful woman. He needed me to help him through a sex change later in his life. Before that, the word reincarnation wrapped itself around my brain and wouldn’t let go until I finished a book about an unrequited lesbian love affair in the1700s, England. In a short story, a woman with multiple personalities needed a hand it getting out of an abusive relationship, and begged me to write her an escape route. In a collection of short stories, the theme of returning home kept emerging. In one of those, a young girl from the bayou hitchhiked across country to “find herself” in San Francisco so she could return home to take over the business she was to inherit. Without that quest, she would have lived a quietly miserable life, trapped in a go-nowhere existence. In another, a young Miwok girl beckoned me with mental picture of herself and her younger brother picking blueberries in a field. The girl is stolen and raised in another tribe, and fights for her life to return to her people. It amazed me how many versions of returning home there actually were when I began listening to the characters.

There appears to be no rhyme or reason to what I write—I just show up when I’m called.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Creative Manifestation

There was a time in my life when I was faced with quitting a particularly physical job for the sake of my pregnancy. Everything about my life was about to change with the birth of my daughter, so it seemed like a good time to re-evaluate the space into which I was bringing this new life-form. In hindsight, I think of this as my hedonist period.

It started with bag balm. For those of you who’ve been pregnant, you know the relief this can bring to stretching skin. For those of you who haven’t, imagine cow udders massaged in a balm that would relieve the pressure and swelling of constant milk production and extraction. Yeow. Bag balm spawned the desire for other body pleasure/necessity products: soothing oils, lotions, gentle soaps, herbal toothpaste, scented shampoo. . .

One of my favorite spots on earth was the Berkeley Body Shop. I had moved up from Berkeley a couple years earlier, and when homesick for the chaos of city living (at that time, we were living on the side of a mountain, miles from anything, next to a burbling creek, surrounded by trees), I’d drive a couple hours south and spend the day in my old Berkeley haunts. The Body Shop was a place that met the needs of all my senses (yes, there were even edible massage oils). I used to dream of having a life surrounded by this sort of luxury, as I would pay for one bar of exquisite smelling hand-milled soap, or one carefully chosen bottle of scented lotion.

Pregnancy for me was a hugely inspired, creatively filled endeavor. When I quit my job, I decided to open my own retail business, selling all those scrumptious products I was driving to Berkeley to buy, one at a time. I’ve always been a learn-by-doing sorta gal, so with the help of my then-husband, I launched into a mad information gathering quest, learned how to do business proposals, a fictitious business statement, advertising, how to deal with wholesalers, keep records, price and display products.

We were putting the final coat of stain on the double Dutch shop door the day before I went into labor. Three days after my daughter was born, we opened up shop. My daughter had a special place on top of the counter, and a small quiet room for uninterrupted naps as needed. We were surrounded by luxury. In good weather, the top doors were open, allowing scents to waft seductively onto the street. New Age music welcomed people into the shop. Incense, music, scented soap, thirty different fragrances in bulk that could be used to scent lotions, shampoos, massage oils, shaving lotions, bubble bath, individual essential oils, jewelry, East Indian clothing, baskets, gift packages, lip balms, natural make up, hair brushes, foot massage products, Reflexology charts—virtually everything to soothe or stimulate the senses—could be found in this little haven of hedonism.

It became a hub, a center, a gathering point for like-minded people, breaking the isolation that often comes with new motherhood. Local artists displayed their work. It became an information distribution center for events in the community. It became a drop-in, safe and welcoming haven for patients from the nearby state hospital who were on day pass. It became “that place where the baby is growing up.” By the time my daughter was two, I was known about town as, “the Scent Shoppe baby’s mother.”

Fast forward a few decades. I sold the shop when my daughter was five, and returned to the university to finish my education. My life reinvented itself, as life does, although I didn’t lose touch completely with the word of scents. I went through a period of fascination with medicinal essential oils for healing. I’m partial to using Frankincense for removing skin tags. You want to know what you’re doing before you try this, or you’ll damage your skin. Geranium oil is good for those pesky fungal conditions and antibacterial needs. My favorite is an oil (blend) that reportedly was used back in the days of the Black Plague to boost the immune system.

Life moved on, and I got distracted with a host of other interests. I gave away my collection of oils and books on healing.

Recently, a friend passed along a recipe for foaming hand soap using essential oils, and I found myself returning to this old passion, the desire to bring a little luxury into my life. If you’re feeling particularly hedonistic and adventurous, here’s what you’ll need:

A foaming pump bottle. The only place I could find these where you didn’t have to order in lots of 1,000 was on-line. They’re very reasonable—a little over a dollar each. Into this bottle, fill ½ your container with Dr. Bronner’s unscented liquid soap (most health stores carry this, some in bulk); ¼ your container with filtered water, and 1/8 your container with an oil of your choice (jojoba, olive, almond, etc.). Add your favorite essential oil—a few drops or more, your choice. Shake gently to blend. The pump will do the rest. It creates a luxurious, scented, foaming soap worthy of anyone on your Christmas gift list. Or, perhaps, just for yourself.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Next Step

In my post dated Aug 26, 2011, I mentioned a sequel I was working on, The Next Step, the follow-up story to the novel I’m STILL shopping, Best Laid Plans.

In The Next Step, the residents of a recovery house for female ex-felons have relocated their digs from San Francisco to the rolling vineyards of Santa Rosa, CA. As much as they are moving away from a lot of bad karma and potentially dangerous legal entanglements in the city, they are moving to the peaceful, slower country life that intuitively seems to lend itself to deeper healing. They’re off to a rough start, however. Let me share a little of their journey(and, yes, I have wi fi in the cave):

Madigan, all two-hundred and eighty pounds of her, was stuffed into a red and white polka-dot swimsuit. It was mid-afternoon, the day after the women of The Next Step recovery house for female ex-felons, of which Madigan was one, had moved into their newly built digs in Santa Rosa. Their two-story farmhouse, on two acres of non-productive vineyard land, had been gifted to them as a tax write-off—a win/win for the vineyard owner and the women as well.

“Hey there, old woman,” Madigan turned her pudgy brown face downward, in the general direction of hell, to address the memory of their former benefactress, Florence, a wealthy octogenarian, who had run off with their bank account, gone into hiding, and put their original recovery house in San Francisco at risk. “Turns out your crazy old self is responsible for me havin’ a new swimmin’ pool. Hah!” she slapped her thigh for good measure. She stood at the edge of the lap pool and dipped her toes in. The California summer had warmed the water to a pleasant enough temperature, if you didn’t lollygag. Temperatures could reach the high nineties mid-day, and then drop to forty-six overnight.

Madigan tossed her beach towel onto a nearby lounge chair and lowered herself step by step, into the water. Squinting against the sun, she noticed a mass on the bottom, at the far end of the pool. She back-stepped herself quickly out of the water and glanced around frantically. “Hey! Help! Somebody. . .” she shouted back toward the main house.

Alarmed by the pitch of her voice, Shalese, the director of the recovery house, and Chandra, a street-wise resident with a bad-ass mouth, who’d been raking up construction debris, came charging around the corner of the house. “Effin’-A, girl, you better be drowning or something, yelling like that,” Chandra admonished.

Shalese, seeing that Madigan was safe, cut her pace back to a walk, and stopped where the two women stood, poolside. She followed Madigan’s finger which jabbed frantically toward the other end of the pool. “Come on, let’s go take a look,” Shalese said.

“Right behind ya—w-a-y behind ya,” Madigan muttered. Chandra jogged to the end of the pool, knelt down, and peered into the water. “Looks like rats, three of them,” she said.

“Rats? I almost went swimmin’ with rats?” Madigan crossed her hands over her ample breast, holding her heart. Madigan grew up in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco—she knew rats. It didn’t mean she wanted to swim with them.

“No problem,” Chandra commented, “they’re dead.”

“That’s strange,” Shalese said, squatting next to Chandra. “If they just fell in, you’d think they’d be farther apart. They seem almost tied together.”

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Madigan called out plaintively as she crossed herself.

“You’re not Catholic,” Chandra said over her shoulder.

“Can’t hurt,” Madigan said.

“I’ll go get the net and scoop them out, unless either of you has a better idea,” Shalese said to the women.

“I ain’t jumpin’ in to haul their sorry asses out of the pool,” Madigan said. “You could get the plague or something. We gonna have to drain the water out. . .” She rocked herself from foot to foot.

That evening, even though it was a weekend, and their regular house schedule was suspended, the ten residents and three staff met in the group room to process the afternoon’s events. Jenny, Shalese’s partner and second in command at the house, spoke quietly with Mab, Shalese’s ex-girlfriend and current staff member.

“We’ve been here a grand total of a day-and-a-half, and already something creepy happens. I thought we left all that behind us in San Francisco,” Jenny said.

“Along with our hearts,” Gabriella, who had overheard her, commented with a smile at her own cleverness. She spoke for all of them—no one had wanted to leave the city.

The suspicious deaths of several men who were coincidentally the ex-husbands of women in the recovery house, was one reason The Next Step had relocated. It seemed likely, but still not proven, that Florence and a band of her wealthy sociopath compatriots—with an agenda of righting perceived wrongs according to their own twisted form of urban justice—may have been responsible for those deaths. Florence’s vanishing act had brought the unwanted attention of law enforcement to the recovery house. The residents, as a group of formerly battered women, did not believe that the policeman is your friend.

“Baby girl, let’s not jump the gun,” Mab addressed Jenny’s concern. “We don’t really know what happened yet.”

“There were three rats, tied together by their tail, tossed into our swimming pool!” Jenny’s voice rose a notch on the panic register. “This was no accident.”

“No, not an accident,” Mab agreed. “Could be a nasty prank though. All the vineyard workers are guys. Maybe they just wanted to see if they could get a rise out of a houseful of women. You know, sort of like a hazing or something.”

“If this is their welcoming ritual, I’d hate to see what they’d do if they wanted to get rid of us,” Jenny said.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Ponderings From the Cave: On Tortillas and Toothbrushes

I had a tortilla the other day that stuck to my teeth like a bat to a cave. Got me to thinking about toothbrushes—I know, the mind is a terrible thing to waste. Nevertheless, I wondered just how long we as a species have been obsessed with removing food from our teeth. This created another Ask Jeeves moment (see post dated 8/6/11).

Apparently, excavations done all over the world since before recorded history point to some kind of oral hygiene. The chew stick, the first toothbrush made in 3000 BC, was the frayed and splayed ends of twigs from the Banyan tree, and the Arak tree, which has antiseptic properties.

In 1223, monks in China cleaned their teeth with brushes made of horse-tail hairs attached to an ox-bone handle. How do you spell pteuw?

William Addis of England is believed to have produced the first mass-produced toothbrush in 1780. He was in prison at the time, and this had something to do with bribing a guard.

Natural animal bristles were replaced by synthetic fibers, usually nylon, by DuPont in 1938. The first electric toothbrush was invented in Switzerland in 1954.

Just in case you wondered. Now, you can go enjoy a tortilla. I’m going back in my cave (and I’m takin’ my toothbrush with me).

Monday, October 17, 2011

Still in my cave. . .

Still in my cave, waiting for motivation to rejoin the world. I slipped out long enough to photograph the new neighbor’s Halloween decorations. I haven’t met them yet, but I like their taste. The one I labeled “Save the Last Dance for Me” makes me terribly sad in a lovely, nostalgic way. Reminds me of the 50th wedding anniversary parties for my grandparents back in Iowa, and then later my parents in Colorado, where each couple had their special moment on the dance floor. All four of them are gone now.

Going to crawl back in my cave now and rest my bones. Don’t give up on me, I’m bound to emerge at some point.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

It’s That Time Again. . .

As autumn sneaks in the back door to the summer I didn't get, and winter looms dark and heavy just beyond the fence, doing nothing for long periods of time feels easier than doing something. My bear-self is preparing for hibernation—I can feel it in my bones.

Most people run about ridiculously happy to be done with the hot, sticky, summer weather. They ooo and aah about the change of seasons, the touch of crispness in the air, the leaves shifting from green to the red-gold spectrum. They use words like invigorating. They’re out and about—they exercise and stretch those muscles that went dormant with lazy summer days. They even jog, for heaven sake. Dinners are laden with root vegetables and stews, pastas and breads. Pumpkins are popping up everywhere. I even saw an artificial Christmas tree at Costco over the weekend. I mean, really?

I have an atavistic response to autumn—maybe because I grew up in the Midwest, where autumn is short-lived, and is followed by months of bleak, colorless days of unbelievably cold weather. My bear cells begin to multiply as I take on extra weight, experience a bleary-eyed lethargy that comes with the change of seasons. I eat more than I’m hungry for in preparation for the next five months of hibernation when I lose my appetite. I move less, and lumber when movement is required. It wouldn’t surprise me if one day I sprouted a full body of thick fur.

My human experience is one of losing my words. My brain slows down, and word retrieval is sketchy at best. New ideas have to wait until spring, when the blood flows more smoothly to my brain. My heart takes up a hypnotic thump-pause, thump-pause rhythm. My extremities are always cold. I crave the quiet, solitude of my little cave-cottage, and get cranky at a life that yanks me out of my comfort zone daily. I would be blissfully happy sitting in one spot, wrapped in a blanket—just point me toward a blank wall. And, turn up the heat, please.

Fortunately, this response lasts only a matter of days. I can feel it creeping about the perimeter of my psyche, like an old bear sniffing out a warm, dry cave to hole up in. If you need to reach me, and phone, e-mail, and snail-mail haven’t been effective, perhaps you could leave a note under a rock just outside my cave. I’ll get to it.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Door to the Center of the Earth

Ever since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by the thought of finding a door in the trunk of a tree. I imagined coming upon a tree in the woods with a small door that only I noticed. There would be a brass doorknob or latch, and once inside, I would follow a path down to a magical world in the bowels of the earth.

I’m not sure where I got that idea, as most of the timberland trees in my small Iowa hometown were no more than eight-to-ten inches in diameter. But I remember looking, when we’d take Sunday afternoon walks through the woods.

In my 40ies, a friend took me to visit a camp, nestled in a redwood forest above the coast of the Pacific ocean, where she spent summers. We wound our way through the camp to the far edge of the property where there was a huge redwood tree. To my delight, there was a door in the hollowed-out trunk. Stepping through the door, I found myself in a tiny room, with a small bed, a chair, and a table with a oil lamp. I had visions of a Hobbit coming to reclaim the space. But for the moment, I was able to live at least part of my childhood fantasy—minus the bowels of the earth adventure.

Little did I know that fifteen years later, I would revisit the idea of the hollow tree, through shamanic journeying, to find a spirit guide.

Shamanic journeying is a spiritual practice prevalent in many indigenous earth-based cultures, of entering into an altered state of consciousness, or trance, with the purpose of finding guidance in the spirit realm. In trance, we search for a totem animal or guide to bring back with us to our daily reality.

The ritual lasts close to an hour and is usually done in a darkened room with closed eyes to the beat of a drum. The drum cadence guides us deeper and then returns us to our normal realm. Minimal verbal instructions are given at the beginning of the journey.

I lay on my back listening to the quiet of the high-beamed room in the lodge. Huge glass windows reflected darkness, broken only by an occasional star peeping through the redwood trees surrounding us. The only sound was an occasional pop or crackle from the glowing fireplace and the rustle of shifting bodies. Our guide, barely illuminated by the glowing embers, gave us our instructions. To the sound of a drumbeat, she asked us to go to a place in nature where we could enter the earth—a pond, an animal burrow, or a hollowed tree. We would descend that tunnel until we came to the underworld where we would step out, experience this new place, and ask its inhabitants who among them would be our guide. When we made contact, we were to ask them to return in the palm of our hand to the middle world. When the drum beat quickened, we should re-enter the tunnel and return quickly with our guides.

I remembered the hollow tree image from childhood. This evening I knew it would be my entrance to below. In my mind I traveled into the woods, found the magic tree with the secret door, and entered the hollowed trunk. I let go, and fell gently down, down, down. The earthen tunnel was quiet and strangely warm. Roots twisted and turned to define the tunnel through which I fell deeper into the earth. At last, I felt my feet touched the bottom and I got my footing again.

The tunnel continued, dimly lit by some unknown source. Following it, I saw that it opened into a shimmering, silver-gray luminous light, which reminded me of headlights back-lighting a fog bank.

As my eyes grew accustomed to the strange light, I stepped from the tunnel onto a beach of finely grained, oatmeal-colored sand, which was soft and cool to my bare feet. This beach was unlike any I had ever seen. I was in awe of the vast stillness, broken only by the gentle lapping of ocean waves, when I became aware of nearby life. I saw amazing animals, amphibian-like, ancient and puzzling—a huge turtle creature that was part bird, a crocodile-like snake without legs. I wandered among them, feeling strangely safe in their presence.

I told them that I had come to find my totem, a guide to take back with me, to escort me through the middle world where I lived. I sensed disinterest, a turning away, a “no” in another language that I was somehow able to understand. Confused, I stood pondering this strange land and its inhabitants, resting my hand against something dusty-green, leathery, dry, and scaly to the touch. I felt a ripple of muscle, an increment of movement beneath my hand. I withdrew it quickly and realized I had been resting against one very large talon belonging to an enormous creature.

I jumped back, my eyes moving upward, following the contours of a gigantic body that resembled a dragon. Grayish-brown bat-like wings seemed to stretch out forever and a long, pointed tail swept into the distance. Amazingly, I felt no fear.

“Are you my guide?” I asked, my Virgo mind already grappling with the improbable detail of carrying this creature back in the palm of my hand.

“Yes,” the creature answered in a disarmingly gentle voice, “but you know me in a shape-shifted form; look at me carefully.”

For a stunned moment, I considered where I might have met a flying dragon creature such as this before. As I studied it, I was aware of something slightly familiar about the legs, the tail, perhaps without the wings. My inner sight shifted and I suddenly saw my salamander guide from the creek banks.

The humor and irony of this washed over me. The salamander is small, not physically imposing, even fragile appearing, and can be seen as weak and easily intimidated. What I saw in my trance, however, was the heart and soul of the dragon inside, fierce, protective, courageous, and definitely not to be messed with.

I asked my guide to shape-shift into my hand so that we might return together to the middle world. I felt the small, dry, leathery figure of the salamander in my palm. Her eyes were bright; her head bobbed up and down in anticipation.

As if from another world, I heard the cadence of the drum increase, calling us back. Moments later I opened my eyes in the safety of the lodge, the drum silent, my journey ended, but the gift of my guide just begun.

Fifteen years have passed since that time. I live in the middle of the city now, in a neighborhood—still among the redwoods, cedars, oaks, and maples, but the more genteel version of nature, the urbanized version. Imagine my delight and surprise as I took a stroll at sunset down one of the oldest streets in town, lined with turn-of-the-century estates and formal gardens—it was one of those warm, cross-over nights where late summer elbows its way into autumn—only to find an ancient tree just off the sidewalk, the bark peeled away, revealing what appeared to be a door carved into the trunk, with a brass knob that beckoned to be turned.

Would I? I’m now 65, old enough to have outgrown thoughts of magical worlds, right? Of course I tried to turn the knob. It was someone’s idea of a joke. On closer inspection the knob had been nailed to the exposed bark, giving the illusion—to those of us with old eyes, young hearts, and a belief in magic—of an actual door. I’m still not convinced. I think maybe there is a secret passage word that would open the door. The next time I pass that tree, I’ll try a couple of them out, and let you know.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Thinking Out Loud

On Choosing A Cover For My Book (the picture won't make sense until you reach the end of this post)

I thought just writing the darned thing was the hard part, but noooo. It’s only the beginning. Of course, there’s finding the right editor to work with, a million hours of edits and revisions, locating the right publisher and following their submission guidelines to the “T,” playing the hurry-up-and-wait game for months at a time. Should I be fortunate enough to land a publishing contract, there’s the marketing aspect to deal with. How do I market my work out there in a world where books fill the shelves of bookstores, swamp the internet distribution sites, line the walls of coffee houses, even have their own nook in grocery stores—millions and millions of glorious books (not to mention the e-books that require no shelf space and are available at the click of a mouse).

You’ve heard the adage, You can’t tell a book by its cover? First appearances, however, speak volumes. If I’m not looking for a particular book, when faced with row upon row of books on a shelf, the first thing that catches my eye IS the cover—the color, texture, artwork, size of font are all absorbed by my book-hungry brain. When something catches my eye, I’ll read the first sentence. If that goes well, I’ll read the first paragraph. If that goes well, I’ll scan the rest of the first page. After that, if it’s priced properly, it’s a sale. If my eye isn’t caught, that precious first sentence we writers sweat over, lose sleep over, use up ink cartridges over, is lost on me.

I can’t be the only one who is visually seduced into choosing a book. With that thought in mind, I grapple with the imagery for the cover of my novel. Okay, so it hasn’t found a publisher yet, but as soon as it does, we’ll need a cover for the little sucker, pronto. Working title is, Best Laid Plans, inspired by Scottish poet Robert Burns who wrote, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” I remember my mother quoting this on a number of occasions throughout my childhood to address my frustration when things just didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped.

In my novel, there are points of frustration when things just don’t turn out as planned, by either the protagonist or the antagonist (or the author). So how do I “show” that? I wanted an image that I could use again, something recognizable, familiar, for a sequel perhaps, that would say, “Oh, I know that (fill in the blank image), it was on her other book.” I’ve always had a penchant for icons. My mind began its own brainstorming session while I was washing the dishes. Paper dolls, it said. Remember when we used to get hours of pleasure as a kid putting different outfits on the same paper doll? She wouldn’t wear the same outfit to the football game as she would to a tea party, right? Hmm. Different outfits, same “doll.”

My brain goes to funny places when left unfocused. A gray mouse, dressed in a pink tutu, holding a parasol overhead in one hand, and in the other a large wedge of cheese. Behind her, an obviously unsnapped mousetrap, minus the cheese. Someone’s best laid plan has gone agley. Suddenly, the gray mouse has become my paper doll, and I see a whole new outfit for the sequel, The Next Step. Picture Ms. Mousie dressed to the nines, high heels, fishnet stockings, maybe a little hat with a net, taking the first step as she descends a flight of stairs only to find that it ends at a brick wall. Very film noir.

But, I get ahead of myself (way ahead). Back to the first (still unpublished) book. Why a pink tutu? It’s sort of an inside joke. Consider it paying homage to a former lover. This woman fought tirelessly to obtain shared custody of her child after the break-up of her partnership with another woman (the biological mother of the child). The legal battles were unbelievably expensive. One of the fundraisers to finance yet another appeal, was a Dance Along Nutcracker Suite. My ex and two other extraordinarily brave butches donned pink tutus (how unlikely is that?) and danced across stage to the music for the Sugar Plum Fairy. Needless to say, the fundraiser was a smash and brought in all sorts of cash. That was a memorable example of someone dedicated to accomplishing something that was so important to her, she was willing to step out of her comfort zone—way out. The same is true for the protagonists in the book.

I wish I could share the image of Ms. Mousie with you, but you’ll just have to wait. There’s also the very real possibility that a publisher would put the kibosh on the whole idea—but it is a swell idea, nonetheless. I’d love to hear from other writers about their process of choosing a cover. If you are such a person, please leave me a comment.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Best Laid Plans

Chuckled at myself this morning as I hit the “Save” button on my sequel, The Next Step. It will follow my current novel being shopped around, Best Laid Plans. How cheeky of me to assume that 1) the first novel will find a publisher, and that 2) when it does, surely they’ll want the second installation. Maybe it’s just my Virgo-osity at work—I’m compulsively early, and not easily discouraged.

You’ll be the first to know when Best Laid Plans gets published—even if I have to do it myself. Here’s the synopsis:

Set in current-day San Francisco, Shalese is a thirty-ish, earnest, blue-collar social worker bent on establishing a recovery halfway house for female ex-felons. While writing her grant proposal, she meets and interviews Jenny, just released from prison. Shalese quickly realizes she’s interested in a lot more than Jenny’s story.

Jenny is a trust-fund baby from Ohio, who got herself in a peck of trouble when she accidentally murdered a neo-Nazi with the heel of her shoe. She turns to Shalese for help getting her life back on track, and finds her life on a track she hadn’t even imagined.

Florence, a wealthy octogenarian with a nefarious past and dirty motives, befriends them, the way a spider befriends a fly caught in its web, and offers to fund the halfway house.

The three work together to make The First Step recovery house a reality.

Things begin to unravel for the women in The First Step when Mab, a three-hundred pound lesbian bartender by night, PI by day, and Shalese’s ex-lover, looks into Florence’s past.

Murder, arson, betrayal, buried treasure, and secrets spice up the plot, along with the colorful cast of residents of The First Step. A cliff-hanger ending not only leaves the reader wondering about the role of fate in life, but leaves room for a sequel, working title, The Next Step.

See how I just sort of slipped that sequel thing in there? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Visual Feast from the Techno/Dino

My last Post spoke of a culinary feast. This one speaks of a visual feast.

My stodgy old dinosaur-self, (who thinks that perhaps computers are just a fad that will surely pass soon—hopefully soon enough that I won’t have to learn all the bells and whistles on my already-outdated Dell), occasionally collides with my present-day in the real world self who is in awe at having the universe at the tip of my fingers through cyberspace.

The above photographs came to me via a friend who downloaded them from the Internet. I don’t know how to find the artist(s) to thank them and credit their work. I do know that the images moved me, and isn’t that, after all, the purpose of art? There’s something timeless about the castle reflected in the palm of the hand, the lightning in the desert, and the sheep trudging up the mountain trail. Anyone from any culture could find meaning in those images. They’re familiar and at the same time strange and intriguing, powerful and stimulating—the stuff from which dreams are made and inspiration is taken.

This is a creative universe, and these photos are proof. I would never have seen them had it not been for an e-mail, and it is my pleasure to share them with you. Even my dinosaur-self can’t argue with that.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Ask Jeeves

I remember watching a TV show in childhood where a little redheaded boy and a girl with short blond pigtails lived in a mansion with their uncle and spent most of their time with their English butler. I always thought it would be cool to have an English butler, but back in Iowa, we didn’t have such things.

If you’re a regular blog follower of mine (thank you!), you’ll note that I’ve been processing a lot of “Mom material” since her death three years ago. In so many ways, she was the hub of the family wheel. She had her kids, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren believing she had an answer for every question. It’s true, she did. I don’t know if they were always accurate, but she had answers. I was married to a guy once who had a similar propensity for supplying answers to any question and citing the Readers Digest as his source.

Back to Jeeves. Since Mom is no longer around, to whom do I ask questions like, “does eating spicy food make you dream?” I treated myself to dinner at a local Ethiopian restaurant last night after a long work week. I tried the honey wine—truly a different taste sensation, sort of like beer and rubbing alcohol infused with honey, served at room temperature. Not as bad as it sounds. I know nothing about Ethiopian food, but love Moroccan cuisine, and figured it would be similar. I’ve always been an adventurous eater. Bravely, I ordered the combination plate with three different lamb stew tastes, one beef contribution, and a mini chicken (?) leg, along with an amazing stewed cabbage something-or-other, all eaten by scooping the food onto pieces of flatbread. Like with Moroccan food, they bring a warm fragrant towel for hand cleansing before the meal. I like eating with my fingers—it puts me in touch with my more primitive side.

After dinner I commented to the very solicitous waitperson that the food, while delicious, was much spicier than Moroccan. “Really?” he said, with arched eyebrows. “This is our very toned-down version, to please the local palate.” His smile said, “Lady, you think that’s hot, you’re just a plain old sissy.” Although I’ve never been prone to dyspepsia, I had some concerns about whether or not my digestive tract would survive unimpeded throughout the night. I did, of course, expect (and receive) an increase of hot flashes.

My stomach survived just fine, but OMG the dreams . . .

The whole night was filled with dreams of confusion, being at the wrong place at the wrong time, not finding what I was looking for, coming in at the end of an event that I was supposed to host, losing my direction, forgetting my script for a performance—on and on, until I woke up feeling more exhausted than when I’d treated myself to dinner after the long week.

Back to Jeeves. Since I couldn’t call Mom and ask her if this was a direct result of having eaten spicy food at night, I turned to Jeeves—the perfect (in my imagination) English butler with all the answers, even if I don’t have cute little blond pigtails.

“Hey Jeeves,” I typed in, “does spicy food at night make you dream?” And just like my mom, and just like my ex-husband, Jeeves had an answer for me:

“When and what we eat may affect our nighttime rest, if not our tendency toward bad dreams. A small study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology had a group of healthy men eat spicy meals before bed on some evenings and compared their quality of sleep on nights where they had non-spiced meals. On the spicy nights, the subjects spent more time awake and had poorer quality sleep. The explanation is that spicy food can elevate body temperatures and thus disrupt sleep. This may also be the reason why some people report bad dreams when they eat too close to bedtime. Though few studies have looked at it, eating close to bedtime increases metabolism and brain activity and may prompt bad dreams or nightmares.”

That’s probably more than Mom would have said. Her answer might have been more along the line of, “Sure does.”

So, if you have any burning questions and no one to answer them for you, I’ll lend you my English butler. He knows stuff. Just type in Ask Jeeves.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

I’m Sorry

You know the moment, the one when something is over, but you won’t accept it. You say it was because the person had one too many bad things happen that day, or the stars were misaligned in the heavens (that darned Mercury has gone retrograde again), that this too shall pass if you just hang in there long enough—but you know, you know it’s really over. You know, when you look back, that was the moment it was over, even though it may have hung on with a death rattle for some period of time.

It was to have been a vacation, a time to relax, re-group, find each other in the solitude of the mountains, sequestered away in a tiny cabin lit by kerosene lantern and heated by a wood-burning stove. Nothing for miles around but the red-tailed hawks and ravens soaring overhead, ancient redwood trees piercing the sky, the breeze sighing through their boughs. Or the onyx sky at night studded with shining chips of light million of miles away.

She’d been bearish from problems at work. I’d been snappish and irritable trying to make our meager incomes stretch to cover our more opulent out-go. She refused to compromise. I stopped talking. We both knew we were being stupid, but mulishly held our ground. This might have been the moment, but it wasn’t.

Having that sixth sense about each other, I looked over my shoulder toward to kitchen doorway, sensing her presence. What I saw was an olive, impaled on a toothpick, being waved slowly back and forth. I giggled. “Are you extending an olive branch?” She nodded sheepishly, walked over, stood behind me, and wrapped her arms about me in her version of an apology. I melted into the familiarness of her. “Me too,” I whispered.

We agreed on a weekend away, to close up the cabin for the on-coming winter. It would be our last trip up for the summer. She had inherited the cabin when her parents died two years prior. It was full of childhood memories that made her eyes moisten with nostalgia. It was full of young adult memories of girlfriends brought there to be wooed, which made her smile rakishly. It was full of memories of three springs ago when she proposed to me in a sleeping bag on the deck under the redwood canopy.

The drive up the twisting mountain road was excruciating. She would tell you it was exhilarating. With the windows open and the radio blaring, she sang along in her off-key sort of way to whatever was “pop” at the time. My stomach lurched with each hairpin curve. I checked in the mirror on the flip side of the visor to see if I looked as green as I felt.

“Could we pull off for a moment? I feel ill,” I said.

“Nowhere to pull off, sweetie. Mountain on my side, steep cliff to the ocean on yours. C’mon, join me on the chorus.” She turned the volume up a notch. This might have been the moment, but it wasn’t.

We arrived at the cabin as the sun set between mountain peaks. It would be light enough for the next half hour to see our way clearly into the cabin, light the lanterns, gather bedding and reassemble it on the deck. A perfect night for sleeping under the stars.

She was quiet, perhaps lost in memories, as we moved about in concert with one another, opening windows, shaking out quilts, flicking at cobwebs with the feather duster. I fed crumpled paper into the belly of the stove and added handfuls of kindling while she brought in an armload of well-seasoned oak for the fire. I made several trips to the car bringing in pre-packed food for our dinner and breakfast. She dragged the old double-sized mattress out onto the deck. We did “domestic” rather well, I thought.

“I’m famished,” I said as she stoked the fire. I poured a Tupperware container of chicken vegetable soup into the big pot on top of the stove, and while it heated, sliced a loaf of French bread. She parceled out two helpings of tossed green salad into bowls, sliced and squeezed a lemon over the greens.

“Anything wrong?” I asked. She still hadn’t spoken.

“Hmm? Oh, no. No, just settling in,” she smiled warmly. “Soup’s on,” she said, ladling the fragrant concoction into pottery bowls liberated from the kitchen cupboard. I opened a bottle of Chardonnay, and poured us each a glass. “Love you,” she said, as we clicked glasses.

We ate in companionable silence while outside the frogs and crickets provided mood music for a dreamless sleep. After dinner, we wash, dried, and replaced the dishes. By the light of two lanterns we each claimed our favorite overstuffed chair and sunk into the reading material we’d brought along—a novel with a truly twisted plot for me, and for her, an instruction pamphlet for assembling the battery-operated tot car she’d purchased for her niece’s birthday the next week.

“Hunh,” I muttered. We often shared comments while reading, turning a singular activity into something resembling parallel play.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“I didn’t see that coming,” I said. “This author is a master of plot twist.” I smiled appreciatively and continued reading.

“What the . . .” she sighed with frustration. I glanced over at her, raised my eyebrows in question. “Half of these directions are in Japanese. Why would they think I could read Japanese?” she huffed. “I give up.” She tossed the pamphlet onto the floor. “I’ll get the bedding for the mattress. You ready to turn in?” I nodded, placed a marker in my book, grabbed one of the lanterns, and took it out to the deck.

Elbows on the deck railing, I listened to the step-crunch of a deer making its way down the path toward the creek, and peered out into the darkness. I could see nothing beyond the small circle of light cast by the lantern. The world could have stopped just beyond that perimeter. The thought was both frightening and cozy.

I turned when I heard her step through the door, her arms loaded with blankets and pillows. Her chin held the top pillow in place, a disembodied head. Within the circumference of light, our eyes locked. Time stopped. The distance between us, not more than three yards, became a chasm. We neither smiled, nor frowned at this awareness. This was that moment.

“I’m never coming back here with you, am I?” I asked, although it was a statement. A chill that had nothing to do with the balmy night, passed through me.

“No,” she said, quietly, resignedly. “I’m sorry.”

Thursday, July 21, 2011

I Am My Mother’s Daughter After All

Do you remember when you first heard those words slip out of your mouth? You know the ones—the ones you swore you’d never say, the ones that would define you as “just like your mother.” Or gestures, manners of speech, inflections of voice, stride—anything that would cause you to say, “Oh my God, I’m channeling my mother.”

As a child, it was funny, endearing. As a teenager, nothing could be worse. As a young adult, it was cause for mirth and the raise of an eyebrow. As an oldster, missing my mother who died almost three years ago now, it brings nostalgia and a wish that I could share these musings with her.

After her death, my siblings and I had the task of going through her personal items, sorting, keeping, tossing, donating. If you’ve lost a parent, you know just what this is like. Mom collected things—Hummel statues, plastic containers, cards and letters (according to the boxes, I don’t think she ever threw any of them away). And she made notes in journals—cryptic entries that left us scratching our heads, furrowing our eyebrows, casting furtive looks at one another as we would read aloud from the pages. Long lists of names, not people she knew, just names. The temperature on different days. Words and phrases that caught her fancy. Numbers. Medical terms, without definition.

I was in my office the other day, between clients—someone had canceled with short notice, leaving me time to file a nail that had chipped earlier when I banged it on the bathroom counter—rifling through my bag to find an nail file, when I dislodged a miniature journal made of rice paper, bound with raffia, that has been a constant companion in my bag for however long I’ve had that bag. I keep the journal handy to jot down ideas for writing, capture snippets of conversations that amuse me, and to my astonishment, lists of words or phrases that I didn’t want to forget. Here’s a sampling:

There’s acute depression, and then not so cute depression; death, as a period to your life sentence; there’s no bottom to dumb; just a raggedy-ass guess; the smell of extinguished Jack-o-lanterns; she sat still as a slab of alabaster; and from a Facebook entry, “You used to be muchier. You’ve lost much of your muchiness.”

And lists of words:

Enwombed, oblique, lugubrious, transubstantiation, sartorial, oubliette, malodiferous, overmuch, pugugly.

And on one page, just sitting there all by itself:

Cucumber and ginger facial peal.

These are the sort of things I can “write off” as practical tools of a writer’s life, right? Defensible, right? You never know when one of those words or phrases will wind up in a story.

Or perhaps, I am, indeed, just my mother’s daughter after all.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


I woke in a cold sweat from a dream not long ago. When I'd worked my way back to consciousness, and was able to replay the dream in my head, I got a bad case of giggles. Bargaining with myself so I could get back to sleep, I promised to turn it into a short story in the morning. Hope you enjoy.

Jill turns off her printer and extracts the seven pages of her novel in progress, Live Wire, a story loosely based on growing up in a family of schizophrenics. Fiction allows her some emotional distance in a way that memoir doesn’t. She’s been working on the manuscript since the writer’s group, Friday Night Live—a collection of characters fit for a novel, all striving to be writers—began a year ago, and has promised herself she will have it ready to send to an editor before she turns sixty, which gives her exactly three weeks.

She stuffs the pages in her book bag, grabs her keys, wallet, and a bottle of Champagne that has been chilling in the refrigerator, and is out the door when Jonathan honks the horn of his Toyota in front of her house. She turns the key in the lock, and pats the door with affection. “Back soon,” she says. Jill has an odd relationship with her dilapidated little cottage. They are like an old married couple, used to each others ways, each becoming slightly more decrepit with age. Jill has never married and has no interest in partnering up just because she is getting old.

Jonathan is a forty-year-old bachelor who, if he had been born a woman, would have been described as Zaftig. As it is, pasty will have to suffice. He avoids the sun, as do many redheads, and avoids exercise, as do many men with mid-life paunch. He is the sole representative of the male gender in the writer’s group, and considers it an honor and a responsibility. Jonathan is working on a book called, “The Feminist Male.”

Every Friday, they rotate homes so no one will be overly burdened by the task of hosting. This week, they are on their way to April’s house. The last meeting was at Catherine’s, an upscale artisan cottage with skylights that allowed the light of the full moon to drench the dark walnut floors. Catherine is fifty, and writes Haiku, a style of poetry that leaves Jill scratching her head at the complexity of this simple form. Last week, Catherine’s butch lesbian lover, Hanna, served them grilled oysters on the half-shell, a cheese and fruit platter, and French bread.

Two weeks before that, they had met at Margie’s, a tract home in a noisy neighborhood. Margie’s husband, Tom, had failed miserably at keeping their four children contained upstairs for the two hour writer’s meeting, and they’d been interrupted frequently by requests for snacks, lost puzzles, books to be read, and questions that apparently only a mom could answer. Margie, forty, stocky, with curly brown hair that defied capture in the clip she continually adjusts, swore this was the last time they’d meet in her home, and apologized profusely on her way through the room to meet yet another child’s request. Margie writes children’s stories in her spare time.

“You have the address, right?” Jonathan says by way of greeting, as Jill slides into the passenger’s seat.

“Yeah, I spoke with April this afternoon. I can’t wait to see her new apartment.”

“God, I hope she’s not depressed,” Jonathan mumbles. “I never know what to say to women who are depressed—or who are having cramps,” he adds.

“Maybe that could be a chapter in you book,” Jill suggests.

Jonathan pulls up in front of a non-descript townhouse, in a non-descript segment of the city—neither old, nor new—and turns off the ignition. He shoots Jill a baleful look and says, “Well, let’s get this over with.”

April, in her mid-forties, recently divorced from a prominent orthodontist, has downsized from a multi-level, Frank Lloyd Wright home—with water features—in the hills, to a shared rental in the flatlands. She writes memoir, and has plenty of material, having lived the last ten years with an alcoholic sex addict. It is her new-found freedom and safe living space the writer’s group is celebrating this evening.

They knock on the door. Jill plasters a smile on her face and holds the Champagne in front of the peephole.

A stunning woman, sixty-ish, in a flowing hostess gown answers the door. Her quizzical expression is answered by Jonathan in a fit of over-gregariousness.

“Ah, you must be the roommate,” he smiles, and introduces himself and Jill. “We’re here for the . . . ” his voice trails off, as he notices a large gathering of people in the living room, none of whom appear to be Friday Night Live members.

“Surprise birthday party,” the woman completes his sentence. “I’m Francesca, please come in,” she says, and motions in them into the throng. “She isn’t here yet, but she’s due any minute.”

“Oh dear, we had no way of knowing,” Jill says. “There are two more of us coming. I hope we don’t ruin the surprise. I thought her birthday was in January,” Jill stammers, handing the hostess the Champagne.

“No, I’m pretty sure it’s tonight,” Francesca says. “Go on in and introduce yourselves around.” She takes the Champagne to the kitchen.

“It’s not so bad,” Jonathan says, looking around. “A little cramped, but do-able.”

“Good heavens, they’re all unpacked,” Jill notes. “It takes me weeks when I move. I wonder where Catherine and Margie are,” she says, glancing over her shoulder.

Francesca comes back over to them and says, “I’m a terrible hostess. I’m sorry, I don’t even know how you know her,” she smiles.

“We’re in her writer’s group, the one that meets every Friday night,” Jonathan explains.

“Oh, I didn’t even know she wrote. Just when you think you know someone . . .” she laughs merrily. “Excuse me,” she says, and leaves to answer another knock at the door.

Jill and Jonathan wander into the dining room. “Wow, look at this spread,” Jonathan says. He dips a jumbo shrimp into a tangy sauce and takes a bite. A parenthesis of catsup attaches itself to the corner of his mouth.

“Do you think we ought to call Catherine and Margie and see what’s holding them up?” Jill glances at her watch. Without waiting for a response, she opens her cell and dials Catherine’s number.

“Hey, where are you?” Catherine answers.

“We’re here,” Jill says, “where are you?”

“Out back,” Catherine replies. “We’ve been waiting for you. Did you remember the Champagne?”

Jill motions to Jonathan to follow her, and moves through the crowd toward the back patio. “Yes, I handed it to Francesca when we came in.”

“Who’s Francesca?” Catherine asks.

“April’s roommate. Didn’t you meet her?” Jill says, sliding the plate-glass door open and stepping onto the patio. “I don’t see you,” she says, scanning the outdoors crowd.

“I don’t see you either,” Catherine says, “and her roommate’s name is Fred. Where are you?”

Just then a cacophonous cry rises up from inside the condo. “Surprise!” People are yelling and clapping, noisemakers are being twirled about. Confetti is tossed in the air and rains down soundlessly.

“Happy Birthday,” Jonathan yells, carried away by the infectious energy of the crowd.

“Is that Jonathan?” Catherine asks. “Whose birthday is it?”

“April’s?” Jill says, suddenly unsure of anything. A fine layer of sweat breaks out over her skin and chills quickly in the night air.

“April, is it your birthday?” Catherine asks on the other end of the phone. The muffled answer is “No. Why?”

“Oh my God, Jonathan,” Jill says, poking him in the arm, “we’re in the wrong house.”

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Jesus Gets The Good China

Having returned from a summer trip back to my homeland of Iowa, my mind is awash with memories of family, the culture I grew up in--the values, the manners of speech. We visited the Amish General Store, resplendent with kerosene lanterns, washboards,handmade china cabinets,carved wooden clothespins, antique stoneware. We visited the cemetery where my ancestors are buried. Out of all these memories and touchstones, has come the following short story.

Granny talks to Jesus. They have lengthy conversations as if His Holy Presence was sittin’ his butt right down at the old kitchen table by the window.

“Lord, what am I going to do with that child?”

That child would be me, constructing a bypass through the white, fluffy serving of mashed potatoes so the rich, golden gravy meanders artfully through the mound before circling like a moat on the Melmac.

“I’ve tried ‘till I was blue in the face,” she answers.

I no longer look around for the source of sage advice. It’s at the place setting across from me, where the good china with the dainty blue flowers around the edges is laid, where the silverware all matches, where the only un-chipped glass in the house rests. Granny has taken, “Set a place at the table for our Lord,” to a whole new level. She’s concrete like that.

I was in diapers when I came to live with her. My Momma overtook her medication one time too many, and ‘Daddy’ is a word with no face attached. Grandpa Bean, named ‘cause he was long and narrow, fell over one day while picking up walnuts from the tree out front, and never woke up. Just Granny and I were left among the upright.

I guess Granny couldn’t see herself as a single parent at sixty, so she partnered up with Jesus. It wasn’t so bad, mostly. When I hit elementary school, Back to School Night was somewhat awkward.

“Jesus, will you just look at that science project!” Granny exclaimed as she strolled through my fifth grade classroom. Mrs. Tiddle raised her eyebrows like she does when one of the kids uses profanity in front of her, but she didn’t follow it by the extended throat-clearing noise she usually makes.

“Lord, let’s move on to the next room,” Granny muttered as she took my hand and pulled me along behind her. A long sigh, like a tire slowly going flat, escaped from Mrs. Tiddle's nose.

“Holy Mother of God,” she addressed Our Lady of the Cross, who was, I guess, sort of like a step-great-grandmother to me, if you’re following the lineage. We’d just approached my project, all laid out nice and neat, each collection of multi-colored, fuzzy bacteria and deathly looking mold in its own little Petri dish. There was one dish in which nothing had grown, next to a bottle of Lysol. My point was that the stuff works.

“You got all those germs from our house?” Granny asked, squinting low over the containers, wrinkling her nose at the explosion of spores. “Jesus, we’ve got some cleaning up to do.” I smiled at the thought of Grandpa Jesus with a mop and a pail of water sloshing around on the kitchen floor.

“If that don’t beat all,” Granny said, seemingly pleased. I guess she was referring to the little white ribbon stuck with tape to the summary of my project. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it was the blue ribbons that beat all. Didn’t want to ruin her day.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Journey to the Soul

I had a wonderful experience recently, deep in the Los Gatos mountains, surrounded by redwood trees. I met with two of my writing group members for a writer’s retreat for the soul, to super-charge my creative energy, relax my mind and body, generally help get myself out of my own way. We read from our works in progress, did an amazing past life regression, and spent a few hours creating collages.

For those of you who are new to the art of collage, it is an assemblage of different forms, thus creating a new whole. I have some fear that collages are becoming a lost art. You can now create automatic shape collages on the internet with a mere click of the mouse. The “old fashioned,” and I believe much more therapeutic, way of creating a collage is as follows:

Prepare in advance – a stack of magazines that you won’t mind “disassembling.” If you’re attached to an article on the flip side of an image you want to use, read the article first; a glue stick, or some form of easy to work with adhesive; a pair of scissors; paper or card stock on which you will mount your images; music for background inspiration if you wish, or silence if you prefer; a bag or box to throw your scraps in; pens, colored markers, sparkling adhesive ink, etc. to add emphasis as needed.

To start – make sure you have an abundance of time. As with many art forms, time distorts when you’re deep in the process. Sit comfortably with the magazines in front of you. Begin turning pages. When something catches your eye, you may not even know why—it doesn’t matter, rip either the whole page or the image out, and set it aside. Move on to the next page. Don’t dwell, just keep turning the pages and removing images as they call to you. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to this part, except I believe your subconscious is in full charge. Let it have its way with you.

When you have a pile that intuitively feels like “enough” to begin with, set the magazines aside, spread the images out in front of you, and let your eyes wander over them, keeping a soft focus. You may find that some images seem to have a connection, “go together” in a way you hadn’t anticipated, suggest something as a group. Set these aside together. Consider the size of backing you’ll be working with. One of my writer friends likes to work on poster board, with lots of room to write words or thoughts, or add images by pen or colored marker. Another uses pages in her journal. I like a more compact index card, 5x7, that requires fewer images and more concentration of space.

When you’ve chosen the pictures for your first mounting, trim them in whatever way suits you. You can leave the background on, overlap images, be creative with the shapes, or trim them close to the image itself—it’s up to you.

Next, arrange them on your mounting surface in a way that makes sense to you. Sometimes a story will appear, or a thought will show itself in visual form. Occasionally, something you’ve been working on consciously or subconsciously, will reveal itself through the collection of images. When the arrangement and placement feels right, glue them in place. If you want to add words, thoughts, drawings, now is the time. If you’re making more than one collage, set the first aside and go on to the rest of them following the same steps.

When you’ve finished your collage(s), spend some time reflecting on the imagery in front of you. Clear your mind, and be willing to receive any thoughts, notice any feelings that may come up. Is there something the images individually or collectively might say to you if they could be in conversation with you? Is there something you might say to them? Whatever comes to you, turn the collage over, and write it on the back, or if you prefer, on a separate piece of paper, or in your journal.

The images I’ve chosen (above) to share, come from the writer’s retreat. Separately, the images meant nothing in particular as I tore them from the magazines. The image on the left, I call “All the time in the world.” It helps me remember that when I live life at a frantic pace, I reduce the quality. Time is eternal; there’s enough of it.

The middle picture deals with some self-expectations I wasn’t aware I was carrying. My writing for this one is, “My child, you will have mighty big shoes to fill this time around. Be not afraid.” I had no idea how the skeleton and the tennis shoes could come together, but now it sort of makes sense.

The last card is a gentle reminder to myself. I also hear myself saying this to clients from time to time. “You are safe, you are loved, you are not alone.” I think of it as my “higher self” card, a reminder of my own special fit in the universe.

I hope this posting inspires you to try a collage, or take out one you’ve made in the past and reflect on it. The images are symbolic, metaphoric, timeless—sort of like doing a sandtray without the mess. Enjoy your journey.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

You Can’t Go Home Again

You’ve heard the words, “You can’t go home again,” usually indicating that things change, that what you remember from your childhood will look—and actually be—different than how you experienced it oh-so-many years ago.

There’s a story that’s been niggling around in the back of my mind wanting to be told, of a decrepit, miserly old man from my childhood and his rickety old mansion that took up the better portion of a town block. I’ve started the story many times only to set it aside, and finally delete it weeks later. Yet, it lingers in my mind like one of those menopausal thoughts you can’t quite bring to consciousness during waking hours, but you know will reveal itself at 3a.m. when you wake tossing sheets and blankets off your sweat-drenched body.

I’ve waited, I’ve woken, I’ve tossed—still nothing. I thought that perhaps my recent trek back to my hometown to bury my parents (see April blog) might shake something loose. My cousins, siblings, and I spent a goodly amount of time driving and walking through the Midwestern summer drizzle I-spying all our old haunts—schools, former family homes, old soda fountains, the library, the parks, spending hours sharing our “do you remember when . . .” stories.

The two houses I’d grown up in, more or less recognizable, sported some needed upgrades. My grandmother’s house was missing the garden and back yard where we spent much of our childhood, running up and down the cellar door, and making dancing dolls of Hollyhocks and clothespins. My aunt’s house, the hub of our family’s activities, was missing the wrap-around porch, and the hand pump that would deliver icy, mineraly tasting water to our waiting cupped hands on a hot summer day, was no longer there. My elementary school that also housed the high school when I was little, was gone. An empty lot remained where children, including my father, had received their education, romped in the playgrounds, rooted for the home team in the football field out back. My old church was there, but surrounded by so many new buildings that it seemed as out of place as big mole on a fair-skinned child.

I asked my cousin to drive us by the rickety old mansion that plagued my writer’s mind, hoping it would inspire a rush of memory, a flood of words, an outpouring of story line so that I could finally get this tale out of my head.

The house was empty. Not abandoned, shuttered, falling to the ground empty as I’d expected, but a newly remodeled, newly landscaped, freshly painted, not-yet-sold empty. The house of my memory doesn’t even exist. If it weren’t for the location, I’d have driven right on by, not recognized it.

Staring at the big house on the corner lot, I felt tears brim, the hot, stinging, unfair, doesn’t make any kind of sense tears that I refused to let fall. I blinked back my grief at the loss, although I wasn’t sure exactly what the loss was.

Was I grieving the loss of the home of an old curmudgeon from my childhood? Or was I grieving the loss of my childhood, my innocence, my belief that the world was safe, and people were good and always did the right thing, that nothing would ever harm me, and things would be the same forever? That the President knows best, the police can always be trusted, doctors have the answers, teachers are beyond reproach, and that there would be freedom and justice for all? Or was I finally grieving the loss of my family of elders—now all dead?

Maybe it was just the loss of a good story, after all.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

My Suitcase

Two little words around which I came unglued, and that offered me a new perspective on life. Of course, there’s a story—perhaps one you won’t even be able to relate to, if you’re lucky; or if you can relate, I’m sorry. I hope you’ve recovered.

As a good little Virgo, I began making my packing list(s) weeks in advance of traveling back to Iowa for a combination cousins reunion and the laying to rest of my parents’ (the last of their generation) ashes in the family plot of our small town cemetery. I hadn’t been back home in decades, the last visit being my aunt’s funeral. The cousins that were expected this trip, were the kids I’ve known since birth—there were a clump of us all in the same age range who grew up more or less together, and stayed in close contact over the years, as modeled by our parents, when life flung us to the far corners of the U.S. I couldn’t wait to see them again in their adult forms (knowing that just under the surface were the youngsters we all knew and remembered, along with nicknames and embarrassing stories from our youth).

Packing (and re-packing, and ironing, and re-packing again until everything I needed for four days away from home was snugly in its spot with not an inch to spare) had become a pleasant ritual of expectation and daydreaming about the return to “home base,” the place where all of our parents grew up. I chuckle at the sense of noblesse oblige I carried into my adulthood, haling from a small pond where my ancestors were the big fish—founding families actually meant something back in those days. It wasn’t until I moved to a slightly larger city as a pre-teen, where no one had ever heard of my family, did I realize the moral obligation I felt to act with honor, kindness, and generosity as a family imperative, was now a matter of choice. I’m straying from the story.

Suitcase packed, the day had come, the bus schedule that would transport me from home to airport memorized, I looked forward to a leisurely two-hour ride where I would watch the last of a vibrant sunset, followed by time to read one of the paperbacks I’d chosen earlier in the week for my trip. I would arrive with lots of time to casually check-in for my red-eye flight, through which I would sleep soundly and arrive refreshed in Chicago for my connector flight the next morning. You know where this is going, right? How apt that the novel I’m working on now is called Best Laid Plans.

Sunset was stunning, back lighting the dark clouds left over from days of stormy weather. The paperback held my attention which pleased me, because I do choose books by their cover—you never know. As the bus traveled down 19th Avenue in San Francisco, lined with Victorians and two-story railroad flats, I entertained myself by imagining how I would decorate those lovely high-ceilinged vast apartments.

The bus was fairly empty; I had a row of seats to myself. Actually, I had several rows to myself. Along with a handful of passengers, I got off the bus at San Francisco International Airport. Night had settled in and the lighting was dim overhead. The driver set the suitcases on the sidewalk. I grabbed mine and slipped him a tip and a thank you, and headed to the monitor to check for my boarding gate (having thought ahead to print out my boarding pass from home to save time). Hmm. My flight was not listed. I hadn’t counted on that. Looked like a trip to the ticket desk was in order. The line was long, and people were murmuring about cancelled flights, missed connections, etc. We stood in line for an hour like restless cattle at an empty food trough, swaying back and forth from foot to foot, throwing our heads about looking over-shoulder at the monitors hoping to see the magic flight numbers appear. The extra time I’d allowed to make my flight with time to spare, was slowly being eaten away. If I missed this flight, I’d miss the connector flight in Chicago, and arrive who-knows-when in Iowa.

I didn’t miss my flight. It was canceled. The re-booked flight left three hours later. Weather. This was a portent of things to come. I watched people who were flying north, or south, or even west on our airline move through the line and disappear to waiting gates. Those of us fated to travel east sighed heavily, tapped our feet, rolled our eyes in a non-verbal sharing of our collective exasperation.

After two hours, I figured I might as well go through Security, take care of the take-your-shoes-off thing, the put-your-liquids-in-the-baggie thing, even the pat-down thing, while I awaited my assigned gate—at least there would be chairs to sit in. I dragged my suitcase through the maze created by post-and-rope configurations that seem ridiculous when there is no crowd to control, handed the guard my ID and ticket, and was ushered through to the rolling pins on which you send your personals through x-ray to make sure you’re not concealing terrorist materials in your luggage.

I stooped down to fish out my quart-sized baggie of shampoo, toothpaste, eye drops, and other contraband. The top zipper compartment of my suitcase where I keep such things, was empty. I blinked, trying to let the impact of this hit my brain (I don’t know why I thought blinking would help). The compartment was still empty. Don’t panic, I warned myself—there’s a logical explanation, and I still have time. Lots and lots of time, as it turned out. Perhaps at the last minute I stuck the baggie in the lower compartment where I usually carry my books. Ugh. That compartment was empty, too. Where the heck were my books? Okay, you can panic a little bit, I gave myself permission. Next, I tried the main part of my suitcase, where all my clothes were neatly packed. What the heck? Black Levis, a yellow sweatshirt, a pair of huge running shoes, socks I wouldn’t be caught dead in, and a bottle of booze? This is not my suitcase. I looked around wildly, fighting an urge to burst into tears.

“This is not my suitcase,” I said to the x-ray machine attendant. She stooped down, picked up the bottle of Whisky, and said, “Is this your alcohol?” I smacked my head in frustration and panic.

“It’s not my alcohol. It’s not even my suitcase,” I stage-whispered, to avoid shouting at her.

The woman called two more guards over, who eyed the alcohol and then me with raised eyebrows. The woman explained that it wasn’t my suitcase.

“You brought it through Security, right?” one guard asked. I nodded. “So, it’s your responsibility. What do you want to do with it? You can’t check it through, you know.”

By now, my body was shaking. I was supposed to be sound asleep on my red-eye. Instead I was facing a wide-awake nightmare. “It’s. Not. My. Suitcase,” I said again, very slowly. “I don’t want it. I want my suitcase, but I don’t know where it is.”

What happened next, was a Keystone Cops routine of going from Security, back to the ticketing agent, to the Lost and Found, back up to Security, several times over. No one knew what to do with a tired, weepy old woman who was carrying illegal alcohol and someone else's suitcase.

Slowly, it dawned on me what I was facing. My eyes hurt; I wanted my eye drops. Oh, right—they were in my suitcase. While I was waiting at one counter after another, I could have distracted myself with a book—oh, yeah, it was in my suitcase. I would have changed shoes to better navigate the miles I was putting on, but they were in my suitcase, too. Crap. I feebly hoped my suitcase was having a better trip than I was. Maybe it was on its way to a sunny state where people’s minds weren’t soggy from too many days of rain and gray weather.

If this was a suitcase switch when we got off the bus several hours ago, and the guy who owned the suitcase I was now responsible for discovered he was headed wherever-he-was-headed and would be faced with a week’s worth of women’s shorts, some cute little tops, a dress or two, and several pairs of sandals to wear, wouldn’t he make every effort to contact me and get this straightened out?

I’ll spare you the next hour’s worth of details and skip to the resolution. There was a name on the suitcase—the suitcase that looked just like mine, that even had the same red satin ribbon tied to the same handle (what are the chances of that?). He was a passenger on the same airlines, but flying south. His plane left an hour ago. Lost and Found would page the airport where he would land and ask him to call SFO. They would fly my bag back to SFO, and forward it to the Iowa airport which was my last stop of this adventure gone wrong. They would send his bag, for which I had somehow just been relieved of the responsibility, down south. But what if . . .

What if he didn’t have my suitcase? Where was my suitcase? Would I ever see it again? No time to wonder, my rescheduled flight was being called. I ran back to Security, flashed my ID and ticket (by now, the guard and I were on familiar basis from my many trips back and forth), sent my purse and shoes through x-ray, got patted down (do I look like a terrorist?), ran to my gate and boarded my plane to Chicago.

I couldn’t sleep. I was so wound up, my body ached, and I was squished against the side of the plane in the window seat by a massive man with elbows that poked me in the side as he snored loudly next to me. After circling and extra twenty minutes over O’Hare Airport waiting for the fog to clear enough to land, I realized why they call this the red-eye. I felt a particular kinship to those green-faced, red-eyed monsters of the horror movies who you just know have terrible breath.

Once on the ground and in the airport at O’Hare, I signed up for ten more hours of canceled and rescheduled flights. It was that, or take up residency in Chicago. With my feet on firm ground, and at least closer to Iowa than I’d been before, my mind was relieved enough to think through my suitcase dilemma. Perhaps, just perhaps, the guy headed south noticed that he was left with the wrong suitcase before the bus left. Maybe, if the gods hadn’t totally deserted me, my suitcase never left California. I suppose it could have set on the curb all night, or someone could have carried it off hoping for some salable treasures inside (their bad luck!). But what would be the harm of calling the transit office just on the outside chance the driver had returned my suitcase to their home office?

Thank goodness for cell phones. Remember those old banks of telephones that used to be in airports? Where did they go? There wasn’t a (what I refer to as) real phone in sight. I waited until the west coast would be awake, and dialed the commuter bus office. I gave them the abbreviated form of the last many hours, and asked—more like begged—if they might have had a brown suitcase with a red ribbon returned from their 8:30 pm bus.

Why, yes, they did. They’d hold it until I returned the next week and could come pick it up, right there in my town. Tears of gratitude leaked from my raw little eyes. Never mind that I’d be forced into a late night shopping excursion at the nearest Wal-Mart so I’d have clothes for my body. Never mind that everything I thought I absolutely must have to travel turned out to be a fallacy, and that what I wound up buying to get me through the week fit nicely into a small book bag I’d scored for free at the Chicago airport. Never mind any of it.

My suitcase was safe (albeit, in California). Many hours later, I was on board the last plane to my destination. My family was waiting on the other end. My resolve to never fly again would surely be broken by the time I was due to hop on my flight back to California. But that’s another story.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Living as a Creative Act

One of the things I love about Creativity, is all the glorious forms it takes. A friend of mine has been “creatively” living with cancer for much longer than she or any of us thought was possible by utilizing homeopathic, herbal, traditional, as well as way-outside-the-box options. Her blog is full of intimate details of the living/dying process that humble me as a reader. Most recently, she spoke of perspective—that thing we all have available to us, at any time, free of charge, if only we’ll allow it.

She writes, “For the past 3 weeks I've needed 1 unit of blood a week. It's lucky that I get eased into most of this stuff slowly. If I'd gone from once every few months to once a week, I would've been a wreck. But now, each week, I think, "Oh good, only one unit!" My, how our perspective can change.”

Like many people, I’ve lost friends and family to various forms of cancer. I’ve watched the battle, the hair loss, the nausea, the lethargy, the weight loss, the bloating. Out of habit, I’ve thought of it as watching a loved one die from this terrible illness.

Indigo Crone has shown me another perspective, that of living with a condition called cancer. At any moment, she’s likely to go into hemorrhage or be overcome with nausea or fatigue, but in between those and other debilitating symptoms, she is up playing board games with friends, watching a play at the local theater, shopping (albeit slowly) at her favorite Community Market, attending a gathering in her honor (above), keeping all of us Blog-friends updated, and most notably, observing and luxuriating in the beauty of nature around her—the birds and flowers that surround her home—grateful for every day, every hour, every minute as a gift of life.

I marvel at the possibility of global transformation if we all lived life more like that.

We gathered, a huge crowd of us whose lives she’s touched by her presence on earth, to celebrate and support her in one big love-fest of a fundraiser. It occurs to me, we don’t have to wait for pending death, or large gatherings to tell those who have inspired us that we care. Start today.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Ashes to Ashes

A handful of cousins will join my sister, brother, and me at the graveyard in our hometown this summer, to lay my parents—the last of their generation—to rest. We tried to do this last year, but it just wasn’t time—plans were blocked, schedules didn’t flow, flights weren’t available. Hindsight: it wasn’t time, emotionally, for any of us. So, my folks’ ashes rested in two cardboard containers, at my brother’s house in Colorado, until we were ready to let them go.

Intuitively, we know the time has come. All the arrangements have fallen into place seamlessly; cousins’ schedules were cleared so they could join us; the motel where our folks stayed in their visits back to Iowa had rooms to spare.

My folks were crazy about their kids, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. If ashes in a box could smile, they’d be grinning from corner to corner at this mini-reunion. In my writer’s mind, they are very much present in my life. Hence, the following series of vignettes:

For a year and a half, my wife and I sat on our youngest son’s mantle, in two small cardboard boxes, waiting to be buried. People would think ashes—cremains as we’re now called—can’t hear, but they would be wrong. A Hospice nurse told me when my wife lay dying in the family room, with the sun streaming in and the birds chirping and squirrels chattering back and forth just outside the window, that hearing is the last sense to go. I’m thinking she had no idea how true her words were.

The same is true for speaking—oh, not with words anymore, a charred larynx pretty much puts an end to that—but by thought form. My wife has the loudest thoughts of anyone I’ve ever known.

“Who was that on the phone earlier?” I thought to her. “I wasn’t paying attention.”

“The eldest. Seems they’re making plans to lay us to rest in the cemetery back home as we’d requested,” she thought back to me.

“’Bout time,” I thought. “Just sitting around collecting dust is depressing. Besides, it’s so loud above ground, a person can’t get a decent rest.”

“You talk. You used to sit upright in your chair with the TV blaring, paper held open in front of you, and fall into a dead sleep.”

“It was different then,” I defended. “I wasn’t as highly attuned.”

“Yes, no one told us about that. Wonder if there’s anyway to forewarn the kids?”

“Some things just aren’t meant to be known before their time, mother.”

* * *

“FedEx? I don’t want to travel FedEx. You’ve seen how those men drive—get bounced around all over creation and back. I thought he was driving. Nice new Saturn, now that’s the way to travel,” she thought to me.

“Too long a trip to take on his own. You know he’d try to drive straight through, probably fall asleep at the wheel, wind up in a ditch somewhere. Then, where’d we be?”

“You’re right. These boxes aren’t made for running into ditches. That could be a real mess. Why can’t we fly on the airplane with him?” she thought.

“He’d have to buy an extra seat—seems we’re not in the luggage category,” I thought.

“Well, that’s good to know.”

* * *

“So, do we get to use your grandmother’s grave or not?” my wife thought to me.

“Apparently. The eldest explained to the funeral home people that Grandma never made it home to use her plot. Divorce wasn’t popular back then, and she wasn’t welcomed back home after she ran off—even though her grave was prepaid,” I thought.

“Terrible waste of money,” she thought. “I’m glad we can put it to good use.”

* * *

“Ah, the younger generation. Just listen to all the ‘do you remember when’ stories the kids and their cousins are telling each other. I truly miss that,” I thought to my wife. “And listen to those sweet harmonies on ‘I Come to the Garden Alone.’ We sang that after their cousin died years ago, didn’t we?”.

“Certainly did. Not a dry eye in the house. It’s good they plunked us right down in the middle of everything so we can hear,” she thought.

“Especially since I don’t have my hearing aids with me.”

“You never wore the darned things anyway. I spent the last decade of my life yelling at you,” she thought to me.

“That you did, dear. That you did.”

* * *

“Oh for goodness sake,” my wife thought to me, “tell me they’re not really arguing about who gets to put us in the hole? Or maybe it’s who has to put us in the hole.”

“I hope it’s not going to be one of those ‘you’re the oldest, so you should . . .whatever,’” I thought.

“Or, ‘I’m the middle child, I never get to . . .whatever,” she thought back to me.

“We never did resolve that issue did we, mother?”

“What issues is that?”

“Well, there’s the eldest, and the youngest, but what does that leave us calling the middle kid? There you go—there’s no proper name for her position,” I thought.

“Let’s just caller the middlest, and be done with it. I vote the middlest lay us in the grave,” my wife thought.

* * *

“Now what?” I thought, as our boxes sit in the heavy warmth of an Iowa summer morning. Our children and their cousins sniffle and blow their noses. The singing has stopped, and the only sounds to be heard are the calling of the crows and the distant hum of a lawnmower.

“Sounds like they’re afraid that putting us in the ground will be the end of something,” my wife thought after listening really hard.

“Good grief,” I thought, “don’t they know there is no end? Just the next version? That we’ll still be watching over and listening in, along with all the ancestors, for eternity? A little dirt certainly isn’t going to change all that.”

“They may not be ready for that one,” my wife thought.

* * *

“Hold on, dear,” I thought to her. “Here we go.”

“Ahh,” she thought, “it’s so much cooler here. Time for a nap,” she thought.

“Good night, dear. Rest in peace,” I thought to her.