Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Gratitude for My Writing Sister

A year ago today, I flew down to San Diego to hold onto the hand of one of my closest friends. Ellen lay in bed in the ICU, hooked up to a ventilator, as still as still can be. Under that stillness, a battle raged over her lungs. She will never again say, "As easy as taking a breath."

It's her story, so I'll leave it for her to tell. She's a fabulous writer and storyteller. She has been my writing sister for the past 15 years.

I will say this: She's home now, still fighting, but getting better. There have been setbacks, more hospital stays. But she finished a novel and turned it into her publisher. To keep her spirits up, she ordered a whole new supply of pretty pajamas and matching slippers online. And when yet another setback got too depressing, Cat Stevens crooning through her iPod ear buds reminded her how utterly gorgeous life can be, and what a privilege it is to be able to make art.

She's a prize fighter. She's a prize writer. When the bombs explode, she often pulls her pen from its cap like a sword from its sheath, and she gets the words down. She makes art. (She's shrugging as she reads this. She's saying, "Everyone has their battles. We all do the best we can.")

Except we don't always choose to do our best. I haven't, not always. Sometimes the fetal position is so inviting. But for the last 15 years, Ellen has been a phone call away, helping me to drop-kick the indulgent self-pity out the front door, to let in hope and perseverance. She's that kind of person, that kind of friend.

A year has passed, from one Thanksgiving to another. I know only two prayers really well. Last Thanksgiving I kept praying, Please. This year I'm praying the other one: Thank you.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Barnacle With the Wind in Her Hair

A few weeks ago, I pried my little barnacle self off my rock here in the woods by the water, and flew to Colorado to visit my mom and stepdad. Then I jet-setted back home for a couple of days before flying with my son to Austin to see my sister, Suzanne, and her family.

We are a close family, but our pinpoints on the map are spread far and wide, and we don't see each other as often as we'd like. Maybe that's why when we do get together, I feel the passage of time whipping through my hair, suddenly aware of the earth spinning 900 miles per hour, orbiting at its 18.5 miles per second around the sun. I want to grab each member of my family and hold on for this dear, sweet, short life.

Images flash through my head like an erratic and random slide show. Remember when, Mom? You were twenty-seven and I was four? Remember when, Suzannie? You were five and I was eight? Remember when? My kids were five and eight? And your kids were seven and four? The soundtrack of my mind flits around from eight-tracks pumping out Kentucky Woman and Monday, Monday to cassettes playing everything from The Indigo Girls to Raffi, to CDs blasting Modest Mouse when I took the boys to school, to the silence of everyone hooked up to their own iPods. The irony is that now our three different generations of family like a lot of the same music, and much of that music links us to our past, to each other.

There are the stories we repeat, telling each other again and again in an effort to keep moments alive. Like the time I came home from seventh grade and announced to my mom, while she worked on a painting at an easel in our kitchen, that I had volunteered her to make potica, a Slovenian sweet bread,  for Ethnic Day. She reacted as if I'd invited The President and First Lady to join us for an eight course dinner. In an hour. What I didn't know is that although my grandmother made potica regularly, my mom had never made it. Nor did she have a desire to make it. It was a complicated recipe. She wanted to paint. Instead, she figured out how to make potica for a hundred or so seventh graders.

We laugh about it now, and as I've mentioned here before, she now sends us potica every Christmas. We've talked about making it together for years, of her teaching me how, but we never have. This trip, we made potica together. The good thing about feeling the passage of time whipping through your graying hair, is that you stop putting things off. You get busy doing the important stuff.

Making potica at my mama's.

And so I also stood in a field and painted a picture of the mountains with my mom because she loves to paint and I've always wanted to try it but never have -- at least not since I stopped carrying my paintings home folded up in my lunch box. We set up easels and she gave me some pointers. Then we fell into a deep, concentrated silence that hushed my flitting soundtrack and stilled my random slide show so that I became aware of nothing other than the mountains before me and my mother beside me. And I discovered that I, too, love to squish paint onto a canvas.

Flash forward a couple of days when I sat on a plane with my 20-year-old son Michael and thought about how I wouldn't fly with him when he was two because I was afraid he might break out into his fingernail-curling scream, causing the other passengers to join forces and open the emergency escape hatch in order to throw us off the plane. I realize it is not possible to open the emergency escape hatch at 35,000 feet without sucking everyone into oblivion. But I also fully understand the desperation that would cause them to ignore this fact and try it anyway.

Now I looked over at Michael, a handsome, calm young man working the crossword puzzle, who will be leaving in January to study for a semester in Florence. And I remembered the feel of his silky baby hair on my cheek, as if his two-year-old self had just climbed into my lap, anchoring me to this world like a paperweight in footsie pajamas.

Suzanne picked us up at the airport and we joined her kids at a restaurant for dinner. Another story we like to retell: The first time they visited us, Michael, who is a year older than my niece Nicole, would push Nicole down when she'd get anywhere within three yards of me and say, "No, baby, no! My mommy!"

Nicole sharing a moment with her school mascot at UT.
Michael refraining from pushing. Such cooperative cousins.

I am happy to report that Michael no longer screams or pushes Nicole or teases her mercilessly as he did when they were growing up. But the two of them, along with my 16-year-old nephew Chris, made us laugh so hard all through dinner that my abdominal muscles actually ached. Considering the fact that I don't really have abdominal muscles, this is truly amazing. Either our kids should have their own show on Comedy Central or we share a genetic predisposition that makes us think the same ridiculous jokes are utterly hilarious.

But, wait. For some reason, the kids don't think my ridiculous jokes are utterly hilarious. Hmm. I'll have to rethink that one.

Anyway, it was a good trip. And now I'm back home, missing everyone. But I am here, with our dog, Stuart, and our cat, Bob, both stretched out across our bed. Stan makes breakfast, the fire in the wood stove pops. One day this quiet, simple morning may flash in my memory like a slide. One day Stan and I might shout to each other in ears stuffed with hearing aids, "Remember, Sweetie? Remember that little place by the river? Remember Stuart and Bob? And how they would hog the bed? And how much we loved them anyway?"

And yet for now I am right here, tucked back into this little home, back to my barnacle ways, scrawling words down in some kind of effort to slow this world's spinning -- slowing it enough, at least, to touch and feel the moments as they fly by.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Gift My Mother Gave Me

Today is my mom's birthday. I have so many good Mom Stories, I'm going to have to narrow them down to a few. But first you'll need a little background.

Way back when, my mom was an A student, president of her high school class, then president of her college sorority. She graduated with honors with a degree in pharmacy.

I proudly ran to claim her whenever she picked me up from school; she was the prettiest mom, the smartest mom, the mom who had a real career with the men in the 1960s and still came home and finger-painted with the kids.

The woman had it all going on.

But in the mid-1970s, a cross-country move away from a job she loved, the deaths of her parents, her disintegrating marriage, and a family history of alcoholism all got together and sucker punched her. Hard. We lost her for a few years and we almost lost her for good. But in the last round, she got up and she fought back, and she came out of it stronger and more fully alive than she'd ever been.

I could leave that part out but I won't, because out of all the gifts she's given my sister and me over the years, we both agree that the most significant has been the gift of her sobriety. The bravery of her sobriety. It shaped both our lives and directed many of the choices we've made.

Now don't get me wrong. My mom still gets high. I don't want to sound cliché and say she gets high on life, so I'll put it this way: She gets high on cilantro.

This is how it goes: We're seated at a Mexican restaurant when she starts moaning, as if she might be starting in on an impression of the famous When Harry Met Sally scene of Sally in the diner. But my mother isn't faking anything. She's genuinely excited about how fresh the cilantro tastes.

"Honey, isn't this the best cilantro you've ever tasted?" She opens her eyes and waits for my answer.

"You said that the last time we had Mexican."

"I did? I did?" She knits her eyebrows together then shrugs. "Well. That was really wonderful, too. But this is even better, don't you think?" She looks at me expectantly.

I've learned to say, "Yes. Absolutely." But my sister and I roll our eyes whenever she goes into her spiels about the best cilantro, the best eggplant, the best mocha almond fudge ice cream, the best friggin' french fries she's ever had in her entire life. 

The best. Ever.

Then there was the time when we were in another restaurant, waiting to be seated. My mom sat down at a Pac Man game. Remember Pac Man?

"Ohhh. I've been wanting to try this!" she said. She started playing, whooping and hollering, slapping her knee, stomping her feet, having a grand old time of it. "What a hoot!" she said, beaming.

That's when my brother-in-law pulled a quarter out of his pocket, handed it to her, and said, "You'll need this to start the game."

She looked up at him, then down at the moving pac men on the screen. And she started laughing. My mother always laughs harder at herself than any of us do, and we all laugh pretty hard at her, with her. She laughs until tears roll down her cheeks. She eventually catches her breath, calms herself. Then the laughing starts back up again.

She approaches her life with the deepest sense of enthusiasm and appreciation. She lives with her kind and gentle husband, Bill, on acreage along the Western Slope in Colorado with a break-your-heart-open view of the mountains.

This is a woman who has had three hip replacements over the years along with a badly broken leg and wrist. But, the hell with it, she set down her knitting needles at 70 and took up kayaking anyway. She dons overalls and a big straw hat and grows a thriving organic garden from seeds. At Christmas, she sends us braids of five different kinds of her garlic. And homemade potica, which is a delicious walnut and cinnamon bread from a recipe her grandmother brought over from Yugoslavia. She paints gorgeous landscapes and wins blue ribbons. She used to have chickens and llamas. Now she has cats. And Yaks.

Yep. Yaks.

So today she is 72.

I hope I'm like her when I grow up.

I love you, Mom.

Happy Birthday, pretty lady.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Place Where You Go To Listen

When I was in my early twenties, I drove up the Alcan, the Alaskan Canadian highway, with my then soon-to-be-husband, who was from the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. I have always had a deep sense of place. It's not hard for me to picture myself living in beautiful spots I visit. But I have never fallen so hard for a place as I fell for Alaska. The fierce mountains, aqua water against blue-white glaciers, the trees that never stop, the wildlife around every bend -- it all crept under my skin and stayed.

As we drove from the Kenai up to Fairbanks, we plotted our life together. Perhaps he would transfer up to University of Alaska at Fairbanks to finish his engineering degree. Then we would raise a family. I saw a cozy cabin in the woods. Stomping off the snowshoes. Writing with kids in my lap.

I've always been a bit of a naive romantic, if you haven't gotten that yet.

But when we arrived in Fairbanks, we changed our minds. Fairbanks is not the Alaska of the cruise ship ads. There are no close-ups of jagged mountains and glaciers falling into the sea. It lies more flat and open, the mountains at a distance. And Fairbanks gets a lot colder than southeast Alaska or the Kenai Peninsula  -- 50 below zero is not uncommon in the winter. At that time, rents were double what we would be paying in central California, and we were broke.

We decided to finish school back in California and then move to Alaska, perhaps to Homer, the place where I stood on the spit and looked across the Kachemak Bay to the most incredible mountains and thought, simply, yes. Or maybe we'd even move across the bay to a little hamlet called Halibut Cove. A cabin on stilts. The perfect life for a writer, perhaps. Not so much for an electrical engineer.

So then life happened. A successful engineering career in San Diego happened. A couple of amazing boys were born. A fixer-upper was purchased. All through this, Alaska pulled on me. It felt like a big, missing piece, the one with all the right colors that would somehow make everything whole.

I was young. I can see now that Alaska was my "If only..." Something with a shape I could yearn for, point to as the fix-all solution to the broken parts of my life. Now I know there is really no one such thing. That our obsessions can simply be welcomed distractions from the painfully obvious. But back then, I felt that Alaska was My Answer.

And then a divorce happened.

I still thought of Alaska, but I stopped longing for it as a way to escape. Things had changed. I had changed. Alaska became a place where my ex-husband's extended family lived, where my boys and he went to visit, but not I.

Until several years ago, when I found myself on a business trip to -- of all places -- Fairbanks, Alaska. I never traveled for business. I write at home and getting myself properly dressed and to a meeting can feel like preparing for a six-month journey by covered wagon when I'm really just driving to the next town for an hour.

But there I was, in a borrowed parka flying north, because in the more than 20 years since I'd last been there, Fairbanks still hadn't managed to find itself any glaciers dropping off into the sea, leaping whales, or king salmon. So how do you draw tourists? the town leaders wanted to know. I was part of the creative team hired to help them figure that out.

I met up with three others -- a V.P., an account exec, and a research guy -- none of whom I'd met before, all a bit younger and more energetic than I was. We hit the ice running at seven a.m., talked to a lot of friendly locals, went dog sledding, flew into a village in the Arctic Circle, witnessed incredible ice sculptures, sat at an ice bar in an entire hotel made out of ice, talked to more friendly locals, and saw the Northern Lights. I crawled back into bed after midnight to do it all again the next day.

Not very scenic, but proof for the bucket list: I made it to the Arctic Circle.

I was out of my element in many ways, but I ate up every minute of it because I realized, even twenty years later with all the changes I'd gone through, I was also in my element simply because I was in Alaska. There's something about that place. And yes, even Fairbanks held a distinct magic for me.

Our schedule was so packed that I didn't have a lot of time to think, to absorb the feelings of the full circle of it all, of how much had changed since I was last there, twenty-two and about to be married, full of plans that didn't pan out, now living a life so different from what I'd imagined then.

But then, when I interviewed some of the faculty at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, they directed me to the Museum of the North, and to a specific exhibit.

It was a white room with a single bench before five glass panels of changing colors. The exhibit creator was composer John Luther Adams, who interprets the real-time natural events of seismological and geomagnetic data into sounds. In other words, the shifting of the earth, the dancing of the Northern Lights, the cycles of the sun, the moon, the stars all become music for the ears to hear.

It is called The Place Where You Go To Listen.

I entered, and was alone. I sat down, pulled off my wool gloves, set down my bag, my notebooks and pens, my recorder. I sat and I listened. I could distinguish a humming, then low distant booming, sustained chords, and even the chiming of bells representing The Aurora Borealis.

And I started to cry. Not just a little mist-in-the-eyes cry. The tears came unexpected and fast, streaming down my face, dripping onto my jacket, even before I could wipe them away.

I felt the wonderment of a child, as if I'd been given the privilege of holding Alaska to my ear like a conch shell. How could it be? That I could hear the actual music of a place, that a place can sing its own song? I felt connected to that song, that place, and could feel the connection from my unfulfilled longing dream-life to my actual life, the one I had lived and been disappointed by, been joyously surprised by, the life I'd been torn by grief and buoyed by laughter by. The life I was living. Still.

Still writing, still loving, still enthralled and moved by nature, and yet in a different place that I also felt passionate about, with trees and water and wildlife. I could still love Alaska, even if I never lived there. And I'd learned enough about life to know that someday, I still just might. Who really knew? Who really knew? But older, sometimes wiser, I did know this: Alaska wasn't The Answer. That's just too much pressure to put on one state, even one as big and bold and brave as Alaska.

In that room, I heard the door open and close. People leaving the crazy lady alone, perhaps, or visitors looking for the Ice Age steppe bison mummy exhibit, not a bare white room. Did I mention that the white room was padded?

Just kidding.

I dried my face and pulled myself together. After all, this was supposed to be a business trip, not a Vision Quest. But I left different than when I'd entered. A bit more whole, somehow. Ironically, I had found a missing piece. Not the missing piece, mind you. But one of them.

Back when I was obsessing about Alaska, I was also obsessively reading the author Frederick Buechner, an ordained Presbyterian minister and masterful writer who helped start me on my way from a blind type of faith to a more spiritual, open way of seeing and being...and listening. This is one of my favorite passages of his:

"Listen to your life. See it as for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness; touch, taste, smell your way to the holy, hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace."
- Frederick Buechner

After I went to The Place Where You Go To Listen, more full circles formed in the scribbles of years, and many more moments of grace. As I've mentioned here before, my husband and I recently moved to a cabin in the woods near a river. A cabin on stilts, no less. It's in Northern California. It's a bit warmer here than Alaska. There are no jagged mountains or glaciers. But we're twenty minutes from a perfect whale watching spot. We've started kayaking. We see osprey and eagles, seals, great egrets, blue herons, mergansers, and many more birds...I'm still learning their names.

When I am out on the water, or walking in the woods, or writing at my desk on the screened-in porch, I know I have found here my own places where I go to listen.

There's more: My oldest son now attends the University of Alaska in Anchorage. His girlfriend, Sam, is from Fairbanks. Daniel is studying biology and spent the last two summers in the wilderness, working for Fish and Wildlife, living his dream. When people assume he inherited his passion for Alaska from his dad, who was raised there but still lives in San Diego, Daniel chuckles and says, "Well, actually, I got it from my mom."

Daniel on the Homer Spit this summer. Photo by Sam Simpson.

I guess he was listening.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Squirt Dog

A few years ago, my husband, Stan, descended into a bit of a funk. His job was not going well. (Which is a nice way of saying it totally sucked.) And we were a blenderized family with four teenagers. (Which meant that no matter how great they may have been, life was often...complete uncontrollable chaos.)

One Saturday, Stan slumped in his daddy chair, clicking through sports and the food network, bemoaning his less-than-perfect midlife while our yellow Lab, Stuart, sprawled on his back taking up most of the couch, one front leg extended straight up in the air, snoring and content in his absolutely perfect dog-life.

And then something on TV caught my husband's attention, reeling him in. He sat up straighter, leaned in and watched, entranced.

It was a Splash Dog competition. Dogs, many of them Labs, jumped from a dock to catch a floating toy their owners threw out over a pool. Whichever dog leapt the farthest won. The dogs were leaping and loving it. Their owners were loving it even more.

"Now that looks fun." Stan glanced over at Stuart and raised his eyebrow, not unlike the Grinch eyeing his tiny little dog just before he tied huge antlers to his tiny little dog head.

But there were important distinctions. Stan was hardly a mean one, his heart was plenty big, and Stuart seemed up for anything. "Stuey!" Stan said. "You wanna be a Splash Dog? Can you jump 25 FEET? How about 26 FEET?"

Stu leapt up from his nap in a nanosecond and sat at Stan's side, grinning, thumping his tail, and cocking his head. Stan took that to mean, "Yes, indeedy! I'll make you proud! We're goin' to the TOP." When what Stu really meant was "Did somebody say 'treat'?"

Lo and behold, Splash Dog was coming our way, to the county fair in just a few weeks. Stan researched everything Splash Dog. He drove over an hour to watch a competition. He talked to fellow Splash Dog trainers. He bought the appropriate floating toy. He even bought a Splash Dog visor.

"It's a no brainer," he explained to me, with more enthusiasm than I'd seen from him in months. "Stu loves the water. He loves the beach, the river. He loves chasing the ball. Remember how he used to jump off the backyard deck at our old place to catch the ball? Same thing!"

"Except there's the pool," I pointed out. "He's never been in a pool."

"He'll love it. He's a Lab!" He waved the brochure at me. "Besides, they have practice sessions before the competitions. Right, Stuey? Stu, you wanna be a Splash Dog? Won't that be sweet?" And Stuart wagged his tail, sure he'd again heard something about a treat.

Stan came home from work singing Splash Dog in the tune of Batman: "Nananananananana Splash Dog, Splash Dog, Splash Dog!"

He had become obnoxiously cheerful.

My son Michael, who was 17 at the time, took me aside. "Mom," he said. "This cannot be good."

"I know."

"He's got way too much riding on this."

"Honey, I know."

"He chest bumped me after saying they were going to take first place." Michael shook his head. "Poor Stuart."

The day of the competition arrived. The plan was that I would drop off Stan and Stuart early so they could take advantage of the practice sessions. I received explicit instructions on when and where to meet them. Just between you and me, I wanted to stay away as long as possible. Call it woman's intuition, call me psychic, but I had a hunch.

When I got there, a few people lingered in the stands between heats, and Stuart sat quietly next to Stan, who slumped in his folding chair. Not accustomed to seeing Stuart sitting quietly anywhere outside the vicinity of our own home, I said, "Wow. He's doing great."

Stan shook his head. "You have no idea." And then he proceeded to tell me how, as the crowd gathered and filled the grandstands, Stuart refused to jump into the pool. Stan even lay next to him and splashed the water and said, "Come on! You're a Lab! You were born for this!" But he wouldn't budge.

Eventually, he escaped down the steps and started running around the pool. Stan ran after him, but couldn't see over the sides of the pool, so people shouted, "He's going that way! Whoops! Now he's going the other way!'" Stan chased him back and forth until the crowd yelled in unison, "HE'S IN THE POOL!" Stuart had jumped over the six-foot side into the water. But they weren't giving out ribbons for that.

"All I was missing," Stan concluded, "were the stick-on red nose and floppy shoes."

I rubbed his shoulder. Just then some cute grade school boys came up and asked me, "Can we throw the toy for your dog in the pool?" I suggested to Stan that since not a lot of people were around, we could use the time to let Stuart try again.

"I don't know..." he said.

"Oh, come on, why not? There's a big empty pool sitting here." So we took Stuart up to the dock. He wouldn't jump. But he would walk down the exit ramp into the water. He acted like one of those old ladies, easing himself in, one baby step at a time. You could almost hear him say, "Oh my! That's a bit chilly." All he was missing were the frilly bathing cap and flabby triceps.

The boys threw the toy and Stuart swam after it. He just wasn't having the whole soar-off-the-dock thing, but he happily swam and retrieved to his heart's content. "Wow. He's drinking a lot of pool water while he's swimming," I said. When the boys had to leave, we dried Stuart off. As we headed out, he squatted.

"No, Stu, not here," Stan said. "I used the last blue bag and the rest are in the car," he told me. He dragged Stuart away from the grassy pool area and started walking through the fair crowds toward the street. Stuart kept trying to squat, but there was nowhere to go. "No boy, hold on Stuey."

But Stuart couldn't wait any longer. He went. And he kept going, as we walked on the sidewalk along the endless line of cars waiting to enter the fair parking lot, a trail blasting behind him. We tried to find a more appropriate place for him, but we were stuck on the cement between traffic and a chain link fence, so we just kept walking and he just kept going and going and going, sick from the excitement and drinking too much pool water.

Finally, we got to the car. Stuart, evidently, was done grossing out the entire attending population of the county fair. I poured him some fresh water. "Would you drive?" Stan asked me. He usually didn't ask me to drive.

He climbed into the back seat with Stuart. Stu usually sat in the back by himself. I started the car. I waited for the words of defeat, the tirade of everything that had gone wrong not only that day, but possibly every minute of the last few months leading to that day.

But all my husband said was, "I'm so sorry Stu." I looked in the rear view mirror and saw him stroke Stuart's ears. "You're a good boy, Stu. You're such a good boy." Stuart thumped his tail and rested his head on Stan's shoulder.

Stan's eyes caught mine in the mirror. I saw not disappointment but acceptance, and not complaint but utter gratitude for the simple fact that even during hard times -- even on those days when you plan to make a big splash and instead everything goes to shit -- the love and devotion of a good dog really does make all the difference.

So thank you, Stuart. You get a blue ribbon for helping us keep things in perspective. Sometimes life is stressful, sometimes the job sucks. And sometimes, a dog's gotta poop in the street. (Okay, okay, yes, you can have a treat.)

This was pre-screened and approved by my husband and my dog, who both promised not to leave me if I posted it.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Where I'm From

I am from driftwood, a Mason jar of beach glass collected from our backyard shore on the Puget Sound, and wobbly figure-eights carved on a frozen backwoods pond in Connecticut -- shoveled and jump-tested first by my dad.

I am from 25 houses and the inherited determination to have made each one my home and yet...

I am from a persistent longing to finally find home.

I am from Goose Lake suntans, a banged up rowboat and fishing for bluegills, grandma's rhubarb pie and sweet coffee-milk, grandpa's sign in the shower: hang up your wet swimsuits signed the management, a fun pack of cousins, and our painstakingly choreographed shows put on for the tipsy grownups.

I am from three third grades, two second chances, and one first love.

I am from "The only way to make a living by writing is to work in advertising," and "Follow your dreams."

I am from lapsed Catholics. I am from being a Born Again only to be reborn as a Born Only-Once. I am from the acceptance of mystery and trying to remember to find the sacred in this moment.

I am from holding reverent funerals with my little sister as we buried pet moths and butterflies and goldfish under an enormous lilac bush, pressing us with its blooming fragrance and early lessons of impermanence.

I am from Jan and Don, from cocktail parties where I ate the olives soaked in martinis and the maraschino cherries drenched in Manhattans, from boat trips through the San Juans, from aunts and uncles in Seattle who spoiled my sister and me every summer with Spuds Fish 'n Chips, camping, and shopping trips.

I am from singing road songs like I've Got Six-Pence while the red-orange reflections of my parents' cigarettes danced along on the windshield.

I am from moving to a place where I discovered that the Golden Gate Bridge is really red and where I learned to call the beige hills of late summer "golden."

I am from a kitchen timer that told me everything from how long I had to practice the piano to how long my mom had to watch us and the neighborhood kids play Marco Polo in our pool.

I am from gourmet dinners served at 11 p.m. and Carnation Breakfasts blended with ice cream the next morning.

I am from wordplay, inappropriate jokes, and milk-through-the-nose laughter; open arms and long hugs; honesty and admitted mistakes; and the deepest, unshakable certainty that I was always loved and always will be.

I am from old slides that still need to be made into pictures, from packing and unpacking boxes, from revising and finishing and beginning again. And again.

(This was inspired by Lindsey's beautiful post at A Design So Vast, which was inspired by a template, which was inspired by a poem by George Ella Lyon, which was inspired by a poem by Jo Carson. With all this inspiration, perhaps you'll be inspired to try your own version.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Good-bye. Hello.

My grandmother, expecting my father.
My grandmother died 23 years ago. On the day of her funeral, I had a secret burrowed down deep inside me.

Days before, while my father's voice had choked out the sad news across the phone line, my first morning urine worked away in a vial on the bathroom counter, turning the plastic stick an undeniable blue. My tears had sprung from sorrow but fell with joy.

At the funeral, the happy and the sad within me circled around and up and over each other, like ingredients in a recipe that refused to blend.

I was the firstborn child, the first grandchild, the first niece in my generation of our family. And my father was the firstborn in his generation. I counted the months on my fingers; the baby would be born right alongside my father's fiftieth birthday. The firstborn in the next generation.

I placed my hand flat against my abdomen as my father and uncles carried their mother's casket past me. Everyone always said I had my grandmother's small shoulders and tiny wrists. I could see a a baby's fat cheek resting on her shoulder. I could see warm formula tested on her wrist, on my wrist.

Later, I would share my secret with my grandfather, my parents, my brother and sister, my aunts, uncles, and cousins. But for those few moments, it was just us; two young women sipping tea, caught somewhere in a folded layer of time, whispering about the mysteries of birth and death and everything in between.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Six-Word Stories

I've been revising a novel that runs about 80,000 words and writing web copy for a large site. So today's blog will be short on words. Which can be a good thing. No one could pare writing to the bone quite like Hemingway. He even created the six-word story:

For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn. -- Ernest Hemingway 

A six-word story packs conflict, movement, and resolution -- all into one quick fix. Perfect for today's readers' short attention spans. It's hard to believe that Hemingway came up with the idea long before twitter was even a tweet on anyone's screen. (Not that I would compare his writing with tweeting. Ever.)

But, really, brewing a cup of tea and curling up in front of the fire with a good six-word story doesn't quite do it for me. And who can get excited about slathering on the sunscreen, setting up the beach chair, and losing yourself in the summer's hottest six-word bestseller? Long live the novel.

Still, it's fun to see how much a few words can convey. Fun, but not necessarily easy. Concise writing takes time. As Blaise Pascal said, "If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter."

Do you have any six-word stories to share? Here are four of my attempts. Then back to slaving over the 80,000-word manuscript...which is probably 79,994 words too long for its own good.

Lost: Man
Found: Woman
Name: Tony(a)

Another moving day. I can’t. Move.

Mrs. Leone Chao Schwartz Leone

The sun didn’t rise. The end.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

If a Tree Falls in the Forest...

As I’ve mentioned, we recently moved, and are now living surrounded by redwoods. I am in love with the redwoods. One of my favorite things to do these days is to walk my lab, Stuart, up the steep road that zigzags through the trees.

The air smells delicious. Along with the redwoods, the fir, oak, and bay trees all mingle with a little wood smoke, sometimes a tinge of salty seaweed if there’s fog heading in from the Pacific. Walking through the dappled light, I get why fairy tales take place in forests, why the word enchanted often precedes the word forest. There’s magic in the air, sometimes even the feeling I’m stepping on sacred ground.

About ten years ago, a landslide ravaged the lot next to us. I’ve been told that redwoods fell like a line of dominos, one knocking down the other, pounding the earth below into muddy oblivion. A road collapsed. An old empty cabin and a couple of storage sheds ended up at different addresses altogether.

This, apparently, was not the result of an act of nature, but of some type of malfunction concerning a water tank cap. Despite the big screw up, the hill has healed, sans redwoods, into a stretch of sun-drenched acreage, full of brush too dense to walk through – mostly blackberry bushes, ferns, cattails, and young bays.

But hanging on, literally, for dear life, stood – or leaned is more accurate – a circle of seven redwoods at the edge, nearest the road. The landslide had moved them, but it hadn’t brought them down.

The writer in me saw them as a metaphor: a redwood family that had gone through some hard times when the earth got pulled out from under them ten years ago, but had hung on and managed to thrive, albeit at a somewhat disconcerting angle. An against-all-odds bravado type of lean. I could almost hear them say, "Yo Adrian. We did it!"

Recently, the road above their root system began buckling. When we sat out on our sunny deck, the trees creaked and swayed and leaned – a bit more, it seemed, every day.

Someone called the county. Men came out with their hardhats and clipboards and assessed the situation: Those trees had become as loose as a six-year-old’s front teeth. They had to come down. By the next morning I heard trucks. I heard saws. I heard a helluva lot of swearing.

Cutting down towering redwoods is not, evidently, a walk in the park.

A man knocked on my door. He told they would be cutting down the trees.

“That’s too bad,” I said.

He nodded. “Yeah. But they gotta come down. A storm. Wind. Someone could get killed.”

Craning my neck, I asked, “Which way will they fall?”

“The same way they’re leaning. Up the hill that-a-way.”

“Not this way?”


It was a still, foggy summer morning. “So,” I said. “If something goes wrong, say, a storm suddenly kicks in and the wind blows this way, you’ll, you know, yell ‘timber’?”

He smiled patiently. “Yeah. But don’t worry. Those trees aren’t coming anywhere near this place unless there’s a hurricane.”

I stood at the window and took pictures. There was no wind, but still, I worried. I worried about the birds that might be nesting in the branches. I worried about the deer and raccoons that might have dens on the hill. And I worried that I was trusting a complete stranger that the trees would not fall down on our roof. A complete stranger, who could have, for all I knew, just that morning begun his career in tree-cutting.

One guy went up and up and up in a cherry-picker basket, as far as the crane would go. The redwood still loomed high above him. Cherry trees barely graze a redwood’s knees. He took his buzzing saw to the tree. Leaning way out of the basket, he cut a wedge into the trunk. Then he sawed a bit more on the other side, and jumped back. There was a lot more yelling from below. The tree fell straight over, just like the man told me it would. Our whole house shook. Stuart barked and ran in from the other room and sat on my feet.

One by one, the trees came down while I watched. I understood that cutting them down was a safety measure, that even I would feel more comfortable sitting on our deck without their creaking and swaying that could one day give way to a huge SNAP. But I felt melancholy. Those redwoods had been a symbol of resilience for me. Of never, never, never, never giving up, as my friend Ellen has taught me. It has been one of those times in life when I can use those kinds of reminders. I know that a lot of us can these days.

But what was I supposed to make of this? Never, never, never, never give up? Withstand life’s landslides? Live and learn and learn how to lean? But don’t be surprised if someone comes along after all that and cuts you off at the knees?

See what I mean? Depressing stuff. So I decided that this was one of those times when, as a writer, I was simply here to bear witness. I didn’t need to apply a bunch of metaphors about tenacity. I didn’t need to interpret or plant my own symbols into this story. I just needed to tell it:

A tree fell in the forest. And I was there. I saw it. I heard it. Then six more fell. They did not go quietly. Each and every one made a thunderous sound.

End of story.

Until the other day, when Stuart and I were on our walk, and I saw something in the concrete. Now I'm letting this redwood have the last word:

Monday, July 5, 2010

Facing My Virtual Shyness

Seré has joined facebook.

Seré is apparently the last person on the planet -- or at least in her high school class -- to join facebook.

Seré is now friends with you and ten other people.

Seré is now friends with twenty, thirty, forty other people.

Seré has a lot of cousins.

Seré was tagged in the photo albums Really Bad Hair Days, What Were They Thinking?, and Oh My.

Seré considered changing her profile. But after all these years, she has pretty much come to accept her nose.

Seré commented on her sister's comment on her friend's friend-of-a-friend's video.

Twelve other people shared this.

Seré is now learning about privacy settings. This is a lot like first learning to lock the bathroom door. A lesson learned quickly -- for everyone's sake.

Seré thinks the facebook directions explaining that you can "Quietly Ignore" a friend are impossible. To quietly ignore someone is an oxymoron. In fact, the word ignore should always be set in capital letters, as in quietly IGNORE.

Seré was poked by her husband this morning.

She did not choose to quietly IGNORE him.

Five people like this.

Seré has joined the group People Who Shopped At Safeway Last Wednesday Evening.

Seré just says no thanks, y'all, to FarmVille. She eats only organic produce and free-range animals raised without pesticides, hormones, or the addicted frenzy of tapping computer keys.

Seré added the application Positive Affirmations. Every day she clicks on "I am good enough, I am smart enough, and dog-gone-it, people on facebook friend me."

Seré added Constantly Checking My Facebook Page to her activities.

Seré is getting over her virtual shyness. Way over. In fact, she is now in danger of earning a reputation as a facebook -- well, let's just say she's confirming like caraazzzzy. *grins and raises eyebrows while fanning hat*

Seré is considering joining Facebook Anonymous. But alas, she realizes this, too, is an oxymoron.

Seré is drawing the line at blogging and facebook. She will not tweet. She will not. She will no...

Seré is afraid the writing's on her wall.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mean Old Stepmother

Today is my stepmom Jan's birthday. She moved in when I was 15 and my sister, Suzanne, was 13, and, well, imagine what a hoot that must have been. Jan and her sweet, gentle six-year-old son, Marc, walked in, ducking flying hairbrushes and Tampax, our hormone-fueled yells competing with Peter Frampton blasting from the living room stereo. (What on earth, besides clothes, did Suzanne and I fight over? All that energy and rage directed at who was wearing whose Baretraps and Chemin de Fer jeans...)

Amazing but true: Jan and Marc didn't scramble back into her little red Luv truck and peel out, though at times they must have wanted to. They stayed. And we became a family. Oh, we were still a dysfunctional family, as most families are -- at least the interesting ones. But we also managed to enjoy the heck out of each other. We still do. And Jan helped to make that possible.

Two teenage girls and one new stepmom does not an easy transition make. I know this from being both a stepdaughter and a stepmother. But Jan has a seemingly endless reserve of grace and compassion. She also has a kick-ass sense of humor. She immediately dubbed herself M.O.S. for Mean Old Stepmother, which is a bit like George W. Bush referring to himself as, let's say, an intellectual, heh, or Scarlett Johansson calling herself homely.

Jan never took her role as stepmother too seriously. She didn't push herself on us. She didn't set up new house rules or demand that we be home at such-and-such a time for dinner. She brought home bags of Jack in the Box and leaned against the kitchen counter and simply listened. She simply loved us, even when we were at our most unlovable. And we couldn't help but love her back. 

I wish I could be half the stepmom she is.

Happy Birthday M.O.S. 

Monday, June 21, 2010

How This Blog Got Its Name

We were renting a home I loved. A 1910 craftsman with a big front porch, original wavy leaded windows, a sunny kitchen with one of those pass-through cupboards into the dining room, and enough room for our large blenderized family. It was within walking distance to everything, including good restaurants, a bookstore, and two of our four kids' schools. We had made it through a couple of recent moves, and so I gave away the moving boxes and even bought flowers to plant as a declaration that we'd found home.

About six months later, my husband and I were gardening in the backyard, planting more flowers and even vegetables, as if staking our claim instead of just tomatoes. And then he picked up the stone Buddha, which had been peacefully sitting in the corner, as Buddhas tend to do. 

"What," I said, "are you doing?"

"I'm moving the Buddha."

"Yes, I see that. But why are you moving the Buddha?"

"He's right in the way of the sprinkler. The water bounces off of him."

"Everything bounces off the Buddha," I reminded him. "Besides, doesn't it seem, you know, kind of like, bad luck?"

"Nope," my logical husband said. "Not at all."

Two days later, the landlord emailed me. Unforeseen circumstances. He needed to move back into the house. The house I'd planned to stay in for years, maybe eventually buy. The home that held our furniture and belongings and us so naturally and comfortably, as if we'd always been there and always would be. 

I'm not really superstitious -- only in a casual, just-for-fun sort of way. So I don't think my husband moving the Buddha caused the landlord's plans to change. The symbolism is what gets me on this one. Impermanence. Change. It happens. Every damn day. 

But I'm sentimental. I get attached -- clutching houses, my children, dreams, pets, dark chocolate Ritter bars with hazelnuts -- though I know better. I am trying to let go more, to accept constant change instead of fighting it, to go with the flow.

Recently that house went up for sale. I watched the video tour online. The camera slowly scanned the length of every room like a tender lover, and the music -- I swear, it must have been from a soundtrack of some movie I've seen where the heroine dies a lonely death. My heart did a swan dive to the pit of my stomach, and my eyes got all teary.

But we wouldn't buy the house now, even if we could. Like I said, like we all know but I keep having to learn, things change. The kids have just flown the nest in what seems like one fell swoop. It's just me and my husband and our dog and our cat. We're living in a cozy, funky little place now, surrounded by redwoods, bay, and oak trees, a five-minute walk to the river. Here, the birds sing their best, as if they're auditioning. That other house? It was smack in the middle of town, by a hospital where most of the high notes we heard were sirens. The rest of the squawking, of course, came from our own brood of chickadees.

Several years later, I still miss that house -- though it is just a house. It's the kids I miss the most. 

But I'm writing more now. And I've started kayaking.  I'm learning to go with the flow.