A UNICORN ON MY HEAD

 Beware of taking a child to the library or you, too, may find a unicorn on your head.

The children’s writer Lewis Buzbee is coming to town soon to do a writing workshop that promises to appeal to adult writers, also. He’s written a book I wanted to read and ask about: Steinbeck’s Ghost.  In it, he writes of Steinbeck and several of his characters and since the third book in my loosely connected trilogy is entitled Rose of Sharon, you might guess we have something in common.

Last Monday was beautifully sunny with temps nearing 70 degrees, unseasonably warm as they say. The rest of the country was wrapped in wool and down and whatever was available to guard against unseasonable cold. I picked Allie up from pre-school and her speech class but it was too nice to head home.  She will be five in April, has a very active imagination and loves books and being read to. With books inherited from her sister and cousins and those bought specifically for her, her shelves runneth over. She’d never been to a library. It was time.

 We talked of how it is possible to take books home for a while, but maybe they better stay in Grandma’s room so not to get lost in hers. She agreed, though we’d come back to that again…and again. When we entered the library, she looked up and down the long aisles of the adult section with something close to shock on her face. In the huge children’s room, she walked up and down, touching book after book, pulling out the small chairs so much prettier than the ones at school. Posters caught her eye, as did the children using computers and headsets. We were early enough that the after-school crowds hadn’t arrived.

 While the librarian helped locate my book, Allie took her time choosing. She made such delightful choices: Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s ready-to-read Dog and Bear: Two Friends and Three Stories. Her other choice: Where go the Boats? Play-Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson.

 Obviously, the child has an innate sense of Great Literature. I mean, Stevenson’s poetry???  Seeger?

Our reading took on a new depth one night. Allie, that dimpled darling redhead, said that her animals wanted to see the books, too. Nothing would do but that they were placed on and around my lap and head (yes, that’s a unicorn up there on high), the better to see and read.  Mind you, I had a hard time seeing the page with all these critters jostling for seats at the banquet. They all liked the poems and, I think, recognized themselves in Dog and Bear.

 The moral of the story: Take a child to the Library; you, too, will find magic in your life if not a unicorn on top of your head!

“WRITERS HELPING WRITERS”

Whenever and wherever writers gather, ideas, energy and support flow. We tend to stimulate each other on to deeper, new or revised work. In my experience, we can talk for hours on the simplest aspects of craft, to agent or not to agent, publish on our own or go for the New York house. In any case, we look for experience, expertise and contagion. On this past Saturday, I witnessed this happen once again, participating as a Redwood Writers’ panelist on The Writing Process, at the Sonoma library.  Brilliant sunny weather, tourists filling the town and still 23 of us gathered.

Redwood Writers (www.redwoodwriters.org)  is a branch of the 100 year old California Writers Club begun in the Bay Area by Jack London, Ina Coolbrith, Joaquin Miller and others. They were looking for a means to educate themselves and the public on the craft of writing and the means to publish.  Open to all, the organization has grown exponentially, with 18 chapters of which Redwood Writers is the largest. The chapter motto is “writers helping writers.”

 So, why do I bring this up? Because I am a member who is finding that the more I lend myself to the organization through attendance at our multiple events and through volunteerism, the more I learn, share and benefit.  It is clearly a win-win situation as can be said, I know, of how one belongs to a group and contributes to it.

 For many years, I thought I had to wait until that first novel was finished, or I had a record of publication behind me before I should, could or deserved to join a “real” writers group. Around 1998, I met JoAnn Levy (They Saw the Elephant). a specialist on women of the Gold Rush who told me about  Women Writing the West (www.womenwritingthewest.org) and encouraged me to join.  I delayed, thinking I really should finish the manuscript in order to measure up. I finally joined WWW, started going to annual conferences and participating on its’ wonderful list-serve where writers raise questions of all sorts and find answers, comments and support. I have found ways to volunteer in this long-distance club by helping coordinate aspects of the Willa Awards contest, traveling the west for conferences and, my favorite, instituting gatherings of members in my home area, Santa Barbara County and Salt Lake City as my husband and I traveled.

 Around the same time I met JoAnn, a writer friend pushed me to apply to Squaw Valley Community of Writers (www.squawvalleywriters.org)  for their week long fiction workshop.  I applied, was accepted and awarded an Amy Tan scholarship. What an incredible experience that was and continues to be when I can go back for the open sessions in August.

 Finally, I came upon the Historical Novel Society (www.historicalnovelsociety.org)  which started out in England but came to Salt Lake  in 2005 for their first North American conference. In a cross-over, nearly a dozen members of WWW attended or were workshop leaders. In June, the group will meet in San Diego with Susan Vreeland (Clara and Mr. Tiffany) as a special guest.

 In all these organizations, I have found new, enduring and devoted friendships. Writing is what drives us, friendship is what sustains us and camaraderie is what challenges and inspires us.

I urge you to take the steps to connect with fellow writers. No matter your level of expertise, publication history, location, or genre, there is a group/s for you. Find it, contribute and grow.

WHITE GIRL, BLACK HEART

 WHITE GIRL, BLACK HEART: SUMMER ‘59

On that first Sunday, Annie dressed in green plaid,

                With Peter Pan collar, shoes, and purse all white.

                                Curly golden hair streamed down her back,

                                                While her blue eyes tried to hide her fright.

It took three buses to cross the town,

                Until, at last, she saw St. Mark’s steeple,

                                In a neighborhood of worn-out mansions and left-behind people.

Tawny browns and ebony blacks, mahogany and coffee-laced-with-milk

                Were some of the colors meeting her at the church door.

                                In satins and silks or cotton worn thin,

                                                Big-hatted women and crisp-suited men were all going in.

                                                                Children nudged and pointed at Annie, until stilled by a command.

Heavenly light showered down from stained glass

                To scatter more color across each yearning face.

                                Thundering piano and joyful choir sang of Grace.

There, at the sanctuary door, Annie heard Mrs. James demand,

                “How come you to hire that white teacher?

                                It’s my turn to lead our summer session.

                                             ‘Sides, we’s a black church now, Preacher!”

His answer came as he caught Annie’s eye,

                “Like I’ve been saying for months now,

                                White folks are fleeing,

                                                Black folks are seething,

                                                                When it should all be about believing!”

Annie slid into a pew nearby and studied the program without really seeing.

                What have I done?

                                What a horrible blunder!

                                                I don’t belong, I don’t fit in.

                                                                I’ve never had a close Negro friend.

I never marched against the drum to plead freedom for anyone.

                I know we’re equal but I don’t know much more.

                                Nothing of race or culture or custom.

                                                Little of strife or poverty or shame.

                                                                My family came first cabin from across the sea,

                                                                                Not as plunder or property.

 

What can I do here, a college girl, and a white one at that?

                I know the church and the Bible pretty well.

                                I can lead songs and follow the lesson, offer up prayers,

                                                And even wipe a child’s tears

                                                                 But of life, I know so little.

Lost in reverie, Annie’s soul began to stir to rhythms surrounding her.

                Song vibrated from wall to wall, people began to shout their Amens.

                                Her spirits lifted as Annie sang out, and looked at her neighbors.

                                                In God united they stood and swayed to the beat of a belief understood.

Grasping hands across the aisles, prejudice and fear were set aside.

                 Here was a place, a people and a task

                           Where Annie would do as good as she was asked.

* * *

It is hard to imagine Martin Luther King, Jr. at age 82, the age he would have been today if he’d escaped the assassin’s bullet in April 1968. What would he think of our condition on a “return visit” this week , if such were possible? I’m not certain of his response but suspect it would be a mixture of joy and regret. What might he celebrate or denounce, do you suppose?

How would he challenge us to extend the lessening of hate and intolerance in our world? What can we challenge ourselves to do?

 I’ve adopted minute actions: reduce my exposure to media portrayals of violence so as not to condone its use; monitor my language and expressions; and speak up, in whatever small ways I can, against the degradation of humanity.

 I’ll be interested in your comments.

               

Excerpt from BY GRACE

 In my last post, I showed how journaling becomes a writer’s tool. This time, I want to share how journaling finds a place in the content of my historical fiction. In this case the book manuscript is BY GRACE , the second book in The Huachuca Trilogy. Can you find the journaled material I’m referring to?

Characters: Sam, a trail guide in her 30’s; Glenda, 19, heroine on the run, real name Grace; Hiram,  Orphan Train boy,6, adopted by Grace/Glenda

Setting: Idaho, 1900

 They continued south, meandering over the prairie with its thin array of spring grasses, watching for access to waterways and shade. Sam gave them stern warnings that hard times awaited as they approached the lava beds. Before heading across the rocky and ankle-breaking terrain, they filled up every possible container with water. A burlap sack was wetted and then expanded to hold a goodly amount of water. Canteens, empty cans collected over the last few meals, pots, and feed sacks were all filled to insure the safety of the trio and their beasts. Hats and neck scarves were similarly soaked against the heat of the day.

Sam got them moving well before dawn. A weak moon shone down just enough to guide them. With Sam in the lead, the others followed with their reins loose to let the horses find safe stepping. The mules, Bruno and Sarry, were let to follow as they would. By now, Bruno was very attached to Sarry and tended to follow her actions. Sarry, for her part, was so accustomed to traveling with Sam that she never faltered from her path behind or alongside the woman.

“Now, I don’t want to have to shoot a horse or mule dead for a broke leg, so take it slow and easy. Don’t force any of ‘em to go one way or t’other. This lava is full of hidey-holes and is sharp as broken glass. If’n your horse goes down, jump clear to keep her from fallin’ on you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Glenda. She felt Hiram nod his assent into her back where he clutched tightly to her.

They pushed on for hours as the sun rose in the eastern sky and headed to its zenith. Radiant heat from the day before kept them warm in the cool of the very early morning. As soon as the sun climbed into the sky, the pumiced ground seemed to absorb and multiply in successive layers of heat that assaulted the senses. Warned ahead of time of the need to dress in layers and to keep as covered as possible, Glenda had made rough shirts for them all from the one gingham dress in her satchel. Removing their outerwear, their shirts of brightest white and yellow billowed around them and offered respite with a cooling effect. Hats dried quickly as did their lips and faces from the heat attack.

Mirages appeared as soon as it was light and haunted them in the long ride, always out of reach. Oddly, an occasional cactus or stray wildflower poked up from out of the harsh terrain, suggesting water somewhere below. The lava was crystalline black in some phases and a burnt red-orange in other areas. Several times, Sam called a halt, dismounted and checked the ground for crusty shelves that might collapse under their weight. Glenda was duly impressed by Sam’s expertise and knowledge of the vast country they had so far covered.

Mid-afternoon found them all panting, animals and humans alike. The relentless sun beat down and flashed back up at them in heavy curtains of undulating heat. Their eyes were dry and scratchy and no one had anything to say as their struggle continued. A brief stop had Glenda wetting Hiram down and tying him in front of her as he drowsed.

When Sam called a halt, Glenda was taken aback. “Are we to stay out here overnight?”

“Yup. Only we’ll be down there.” Sam pointed to a slim trail that led down to what appeared to be a cave.

As Glenda looked and listened, she thought she heard the gurgle of water. Shaking her head in disbelief, she followed Sam’s example and dismounted, bringing the sleepy Hiram down with her. The trail was short and soon brought them to the entrance of a huge cavern where shafts of light entered through funnel-like gaps overhead. The sound was stronger now and Glenda turned to Sam with a question on her face.

“It has hot and cold running water for that bath you been wanting,” said Sam. “’Course you might find the smell a bit strong. Them minerals are good for what ails you.”

Setting up camp proved a little unusual. Parts of the cave floor were studded with smelly bat guano. Finding a dry area and something to sweep it with was a challenge. Hiram was let off his usual wood hunting duty. The horses and mules welcomed the relief and soon were asleep. Sam filled their empty containers with the highly mineralized and smelly water, allowing it to cool overnight to offer succor the next day. Flurries of emerald green swallows flittered in and out of the cave.

Despite their great fatigue, all three were ready for the mineral baths soothing waters. Glenda was first in, with admonitions from Sam to be careful of drop offs and soft crusty flooring that might give way. Human footprints were evident in the sandy slope leading to the pool and remnants of animal bones, perhaps from a meal, lay scattered about.

“Hiram and Sam, come on in. The water is wonderful, so warm that it is taking my aches away.”

Tentatively, Hiram put a foot in, then another and sat down at the edge. He made his way to Glenda by inches until he was fully beside her.

“How does it stay so warm, Glenda?”

“Remember what I told you about the molten rock that exploded out of volcanoes to make the lava beds?  Well, some of that magma still roils around down in the depths of the earth, warming the water, sometimes to boiling, and then sending it to the surface.”

“Is that lava gonna get us,” the frightened little boy asked.

“Mercy, no, love. I didn’t mean to scare you. The water has traveled from way, way down in the earth and, by letting some of the heat escape, it serves to cool things down. In some places, the water would be too hot for us to bathe in, I’m sure.”

It took until late in their third day before they were clear of the volcanic lands and back onto high desert. Sam promised that the Snake River would soon show itself and the town of American Falls would be a good place to gather more provisions.

* * *

A visit to Craters of the Moon National Monument resulted in a journal piece that ultimately wended its way into the novel. Our cave was much smaller than depicted and the water cooler. Green swallows were plentiful and fearless as they swooped in and out of the cave, nearly alighting on us.

WINTER IN MOAB

 With some writers, journaling is left to others. For many of us, it is a place to record feelings, sensations, impressions, thoughts and experiences.  For me, it is one of those ways I have of sorting out writing dilemmas, plot or character problems or simply dumping my frustration of whatever has grabbed me and put my self-doubt to work. It is not unusual for some of those pieces, or parts of them, to reappear in a novel or poem at a later date. Here’s a wintry bit where that process may be apparent.

 WINTER IN MOAB

 Back from a wild trip to California by January 10, we felt we had truly come home. Perhaps it is the stony silence of our monolithic surroundings, or the snowy easing of a white rug on the ground, or the soundless parade of stately mule deer across our field; whatever speaks to us here does so profoundly.

 And, then, the Canadian Geese arrived. First, one seated himself in the middle of the field on a crisp Monday morning. He reached his long neck all around to graze and caused us to think perhaps he was maimed and lost from the gaggle.  Three days later, three more geese arrived. And then, twenty, forty, seventy and, finally, over a hundred who moved between our field, neighboring fields and the ponds in our park. They court and dance, grovel and stand watch, feed and sleep. Driving along the Colorado River as they come and go in our field, we’ve watched them spread out in their majestic V’s.  Walking up toward Moab Rim one day, I listened as their voices bounced off the walls of the river corridor. I listen for them in the morning and awake with a smile.

 I’ve known that a group of poets and writers here meet periodically but I’ve been shy to invade their sessions, not knowing how long I’d be around.  Trust, necessary to sharing your creativity, usually takes cultivation, testing and daring.  I wasn’t very willing to just jump in.  Until I saw the notice of a fiction writing class at the Moab Arts and Recreation Center, due to run until March. Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel was to guide our work. I jumped in. Susan, the instructor, and four other students were at varying stages of writerly development and it is sweet for we all value the process and are sharing our efforts. When the class ends, we plan to run on as a critique group-something I’ve missed in our troubadour life.

 Late in January, we hiked into Moonflower Canyon, set back from the Colorado which was running red. Petroglyphs with a triangular man, geometrics and assorted wild sheep and deer line the rock to the right. Notched tree limbs have been squeezed into the narrow crevices to the left of them to help lithe, slim ancestors of the Ute and Navajo to climb. And we hadn’t left the parking lot yet! Following the trail past primitive, winter-abandoned campsites, took us over the creek several times. A giant turtle rock sat on the rim, hundreds of feet above us. Barren cottonwoods stood tall or leaned against canyon walls; water runoff had serrated the soil in areas, beating down the new green growth. Our voices began to echo as we neared the end of the box canyon. I expected to see a “Butch Cassidy Slept Here” sign as we moved along.  Finally, we reached the end and found a deep pool surrounded by a jumble of colorful rocks and boulders.  Unseen birds twittered softly in the dimming afternoon light. Peace and beauty were ours and stayed with us through the glorious sunset that had the LaSal Mountains.glowing pink as the sun’s rays melted over their snowy shawl.

Originally written January 2005