Category Archives: Blogging Life

Maplewood Elementary Fourth Grade Writing Club

In April, I wrote here about my plans to lead a writing club for fourth graders at Maplewood Elementary in Edmonds. For a month, 16 or so kids gave up their Monday and Tuesday lunch recesses to participate.

The results were impressive. I was astounded at what these kids could create in a half hour session. I loved their open willingness to dive in and write.

One of the exercises we tried was sent by Terry Pierce, UCLA-ext. writing teacher: author Jill Corcoran’s Art-Music-Poetry Jam Workshop. We turned it into a three-parter. I will use the work of Maplewood student Damaris I. — with her permission and her parents’ permission — to illustrate our experience.

We began by painting to music. My friend, pianist Julan Chu, suggested Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Perfect! Mussorgsky wrote this composition in 1874, after viewing the retrospective art show of a deceased friend. It offers yet another layer of cross-arts jam.

We set up all my paint palettes and laid out brushes on the library tables. The kids listened carefully to the music and responded with paintings.

DI.painting

Damaris’ painting, created to Mussorgsky’s music.

At our next meeting, we spread out the paintings and the kids walked around the tables, post-its in hand. They gave each other words suggested by the paintings.

DI.words

Damaris was given these words: splatter (to which she rhymed matter), colorful, explosion, mixed, whispy, wocky, very green, grassy, wonderland, big and new, magic, magic spell, wet, mystical, mystery, misty, green mist

The third part was to turn those words into a poem or prose piece of writing.

DI.poem

Damaris wrote: “A green mist rose from a magic spell. The land would be mixed the forest could tell. Then a explosion arose, and everything was misty. The sky turned gray, and the trees became whispy. Everything was a mystery, with tons of spatter, and nothing knew what could be the matter. When the mist cleared, the woods were wet. Everything changed, a whole new set. The forest was grassy, mystical too, a great wonderland, big and new.

The writing was amazing, as you can see: pieces of writing that began as a painting exhibition that inspired Mussorgsky’s music that inspired our student paintings that inspired words, then poems. Round and round the arts we go.

Next time I feel like there is not enough time to sit down and dig into writing, I will think back to those lunch recess meetings of the Maplewood Fourth Grade Writing club and get started.

I want to add a shout out to Mr. B., aka librarian Paul Borchert, who also gave up his lunch recesses and helped in every way to make our writing club so wonderful. More thanks to Terry and Jill and Julan and Damaris — and to Betsy Britton and Grabrielle Catton who carried on for Paul and me the day we were both unable to teach.

Here’s a link to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXy50exHjes&feature=kp

And here are the writing exercise instructions:

Jill Corcoran’s Art-Music-Poetry-Jam Workshop:
Suggested grades: 2 – 5
Time required: 1 hour
Supplies needed: Boom box with selected music, 11” x 17” white paper, crayons, pencils, Post-it notes, scotch tape
1. Briefly discuss the power of art, music and poetry to evoke emotion.
2. Pass out 11” x 17” piece of white paper and crayons to each student.
3. Have students listen to music for several minutes and then draw whatever the music makes them feel. (I play about 4-5 minutes of music)
4. Pass out a pad of Post-it notes and a pencil to each student and have them form a line to walk around the room and look at each picture.
5. At each picture, the students write the first word that comes to their minds on the sticky paper. They leave that word with the picture. Instruct the students not to write words like “cool” or “fun,” but to write nouns, verbs or strong adjectives.
6. The students then return to their pictures to find 20+ words written by their fellow students.
7. With their words and pictures in front of them, and the music playing once again, students create a poem from the words they have been given. (Once their poems are finished, have each student tape their Post-it-notes poem to the back of their picture. Otherwise the notes tend fall off.)
8. Ask the students to read their poems aloud. At the end of the hour, each student has created a poem that reflects the music they encountered, the art this music evoked from them and the words their art evoked in others.

CALLING THE MUSE

Seattle hosted the national AWP (Assn. for Writers and Writing Programs) conference for four days last week. My fellow BATT-blogger Julie Larios and I were on a panel entitled, “Calling Your Muse,” along with authors Zu Vincent and Debby Dahl Edwardson who we know from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

For my part, I hoped to leave our listeners with an easy-to-follow, How to Call Your Muse list.

In our audience were over 100 writers. Surely these people had some ideas how to call a muse. If I’d known anything about crowd-sourcing, I could have crowd-sourced a good list.

Or I could have based my list on my experiences over the past 20 years, creating 17 picture books and a middle grade novel.

But I felt more research was needed.

So I imagined hiring George Clooney to lead an investigation. Yes, he looks hot in a lab coat, but this would be strictly scientific. He’d film me writing, then do a frame-by-frame analysis. Maybe the Muse would even be caught on camera?

moose

mousse

George’s research would reveal exactly how I do it: Eight Easy Ways to Call the Muse

    • Snuggle your dog
    • Nibble dark chocolate
    • Look out the window and squint
    • Tap out a few words.
    • Check your email
    • Sip tea
    • Google something, possibly related to the project
    • Scratch your ear
desk

On location for George Clooney film.

That’s it: snuggle, nibble, squint, tap, check, sip, google, scratch.

But the more I thought about it, I realized what’s actually happening when I SNSTCSGS is not only calling the Muse, but also answering the Muse’s call. Or maybe – more exactly – conversing with the Muse. It’s a two-way street. I gather the storybits and tools that call her. In turn, she calls to me, urges me to use all this stuff. That’s how the Muse works.

The 12,000+ writers who attended AWP have gone home but I’ve continued to muse on this muse thing. I’ve decided there must be more than one muse, that it takes a village –  well, at least a Swiss army knife of muses –  to get the work done. For starters:

THE ILLUMINATOR MUSE – How else to explain why a writer’s attention is drawn to stuff that is charged with story? She shines her light on ideas, objects, memories, experiences, words themselves, art materials, research, juicy bits of overheard dialogue. The list goes on and on. For instance, my attention is drawn to my #4 watercolor brush and naples yellow gouache and I want to paint something. It will be sunny. Oh, already a story starts to gather.

Making stories depends on assembling material and tools, on gathering quirky facts and notions, on laying seemingly disparate things side by side, on comparing, contrasting, connecting. Sometimes the Illuminator Muse carries a candle like Wee Willie Winkie, and other times she holds a Klieg light high above her head. “Pay attention,” she says, “And report back.”

GESTAPO MUSE – This one has a big glue pot and keeps me in my chair. I almost wish she’d carry a cattle prod, too, and deliver a jolt when my attention wanders.

MARSHALL McLUHAN MUSE – The Marshall McLuhan Muse calls with the seductive nature of the creative zone itself. The medium is the message. Work comes out of work. Or, as Julie Paschkis puts it, “Put in the drudgery and the alchemy happens.”

CRAFT MUSE – A practical gal, the Craft Muse inspires with conferences like AWP, classes, SCBWI talks, and, of course, through other people’s writing. I’m especially inspired to create books that become part of the circle of parent and child reading together, a circle I loved dearly.

I am sure a muse team assembles for each writer, offering skills as needed. For instance, a journalist friend reminded me about the Deadline Muse. How could I forget this muse that calls me every month when it’s time to post here?

What we were really talking about at our AWP panel was twofold: where do ideas come from and how do you sustain motivation?

Muse-assisted or not, my ideas come from paying attention, a habit of mulling, and from savoring stuff that amuses me. (Ah, “muse” is hidden there.) And why write? Writing’s how I figure out what I think. It makes sense of my world.

So I’ll stick with my snuggle, nibble, squint, tap, check, sip, google, and scratch.

But I wonder. Maybe we could sort of crowd-source with our BooksAroundThe Table readers. How do YOU call the Muse?

Abundance

When I was almost 7, my family moved from the Seattle area down to the Santa Clara Valley, about an hour south of San Francisco. Before it became “Silicon Valley,”  it looked like this:

Old Photo Postcard of Santa Clara Valley's Cherry Orchards

Old Photo Postcard of Santa Clara Valley’s Cherry Orchards

It actually did look like that – it’s not just nostalgia playing tricks with my mind. It was so beautiful, such a generous landscape. Of course, we moved into a house that was part of a development that was one of dozens of developments that would eventually wipe out the orchards and pave over the farmland and replace it with freeways and suburbs.  But my family got there before too much had been destroyed – 1956 – there were still great fields of garlic and artichokes to the south of us, with cherries orchards surrounding my neighborhood

Each spring, walking home, we watched the cherries ripen. Mustard plants grew at the base of the trees in late spring, and if you wandered far enough into the orchard, you could look in every direction and not see anything but mustard blooms and fruit trees.

Mustard and Cherry Trees in San Jose

Mustard and Cherry Trees in San Jose

Then, in June, the cherries were ready.  I picked them every day – we all did, everyone who headed home that way,  and we ate them until we couldn’t eat any more.  I like to think the farmer knew that the school kids would eat all the cherries from the row of trees nearest the road. We felt like there was enough for everyone, and then some.

Even a decade later there were still enough orchards in the valley that high school kids could make their summer money in the canneries. The heady smell of hot tomatoes and ripe fruit would drift out all summer from the Contadina and Del Monte canneries in the Bay Area.

Reading Laura’s post from last week, about the weddings of her son and her daughter, and the lovely poem by Li-Young Lee about peaches, I started thinking about those cherry trees, and the Santa Clara Valley. I thought about orchards and summer, and about happiness and abundance.

Rainier cherries from east of the mountains have gone on sale in the farmers markets, and I have been buying a lot of them. The person selling them lets you try one or two first:

Rainier Cherries - The Absolute Best Cherries in the World

Rainier Cherries – The Absolute Best Cherries in the World

So you buy some, but only a handful, because they cost a lot:

A Handful of Delicious Cherries

A Handful of Delicious Cherries

But before you go home you decide a handful is not nearly enough, and you wander back to buy more:

Yummers

A bowlful….

and the next day, when you can already see the bottom of the bowl, you go back for more:

...and a basketful.

…and a basketful.

What I’m really trying to do, of course, when I eat those cherries is to conjure up that delicious abundance I once experienced in the Santa Clara Valley. Not just conjure it up, but take it into me, cherry by cherry.

Northrop Frye once described the genres of literature according to the seasons. Fall, according to Frye, is tragedy – fatalism, the hero pushed toward ultimate failure. Winter is irony and satire – the final absurdity. Spring is comedy – new beginnings and light-hearted endings. But summer is romance – the season when belief is in full bloom. Summer is abundance.  No wonder that in the summertime, I want to write something wholehearted, something unrestrained. Not a sample-cherry story, not a handful-of-cherries story, not a bowlful-or-a-basketful-of-cherries story, but an orchardful-of-cherries story. A story that measures up to this:

Abundance, Summer, Belief, Cherries

Abundance, Summer, Belief, Cherries

So when it’s cherry season, I think about the Santa Clara Valley. If I’m in a writer-ish mood, I think of Frye. I strive to write something worthy of summer, something from the heart, full of belief.

If I’m feeling more like a teenager than a writer, I think (unbelievably) of George Carlin singing “Cherry…cherry pie…cherry…cherry pie….” Click here to listen to Carlin on YouTube. Less literary, but sweet, glorious and openly sensual. Like those fields of mustard, with the trees rising up out of them.

And since I’m talking cherries, and since I’m going for abundance, check out this George Gershwin song – Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries – sung by Dean Martin and Gisele MacKenzie. A little cherry to put on top of the sundae. Enjoy.

From Blossom to Blossom

Our son Tim is married! he tied the knot with Deanne Reynolds in Palm Springs on May 11.

Tim and Deanne on their wedding day with Chicken Noodle and Foxie.

Tim and Deanne on their wedding day with Chicken Noodle and Foxie.

Here is a poem that captures the feeling:

From Blossoms in Rose
By Li-Young Lee
 
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
 
From laden boughs, from hands
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
 
O to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
 
There are days we live as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
To joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
 
 
 

On Goldilocks, John McPhee and Cows

goldilocks

I feel a little foolish this week, complaining about the weather in Seattle. “Too hot,” I whined on Wednesday when it reached 83 degrees (87 at the airport!) and we took to the shade. Last week I was putting on wool socks and whining the other direction – “Too cold.”  Weren’t we just looking out the windows at the rain and feeling sorry for ourselves?

Yesterday, my husband got out the garden hose and watered the clematis vines running along the rail fence: “Too dry!” he explained. Last week, my aunt and I were both talking about Seattle gardens looking like jungles this spring, with dandelions growing as high as the peonies: “Too wet!” we said, shaking our heads.

Death Valley: Too Hot. [photographer unknown]

Death Valley: Too Dry. [photographer unknown]

Too Wet: The Hoh Rain Forest (Photo by Kevin Muckenthaler)

The Hoh Rain Forest: Too Wet (Photo by Kevin Muckenthaler)

Have you ever heard of the Goldilocks Principle?

Don’t laugh. This is a term that psychologists, biologists, astronomers, engineers and economists (hot = inflation, cold = recession) use to describe an ideal state where “something falls within certain margins as opposed to reaching extremes.” In September of 2010, astronomers said they had discovered a “Goldilocks planet” circling a star in the constellation Libra, at a distance “just right” for the presence of water and possibility of sustaining life.  In our solar system, Venus is too hot and Mars is too cold. Earth is just right.  Earth is the eatable bowl of porridge.

What Planets Need In Order to Be Contented - That Middle Star

What Planets Need In Order to Be Contented – That Middle Star

Babies, according to some cognitive scientists, provide examples of the Goldilocks Principle, too, paying most attention to activity that is neither too complex nor too simple, but somewhere between the extremes, somewhere “just right.”

Even bloggers are asking people to leave effective “Goldilocks Comments” – not hot and bothered, not prim or abstract.  Instead, “just right.”

“Just right.”  It sounds like a term from a fairy tale – aha, it is a term from a fairy tale!  Like that other condition that eludes us called “happily ever after”?

How does anyone ever reach that cool center, that point of equilibrium? Maybe reaching the fairy-tale’s “just right” is about zoning out.   Maybe it’s a zen thing.  And maybe it’s no coincidence that Carnation Milk, which started in Carnation, Washington, first came up with the advertising phrase, “Milk from Contented Cows.”

Carnation Milk's Contented Cows

Carnation Milk’s Contented Cows

See in the background, behind those cows? That’s Mt. Rainier on a perfect day. No wonder they are calm and contented, those cows. No wonder they aren’t wondering or obsessing about anything, just slowly munching the grass. The day is just right.

But I find myself wondering: Is the Goldilocks Effect something artists subconsciously avoid, since contentment might be counter-productive when it comes to producing good work (or producing any work at all)? Are we most energetic when something is just slightly – not horribly, just slightly – off? When something bothers us – like the porridge being too hot, the bed too soft? When we sit down on baby bear’s chair, when people are too complicated or not complicated enough, and the chair breaks and we fall to the ground. Too big, too little – is that where we get our stories?

John McPhee suggests in his recent article in the April 29th issue of The New Yorker that revision is the way to produce good writing. You revise when you are dissatisfied. There are ways to work hard, and then harder, to make the writing perfect. McPhee’s own writing is all about revision and perfection, not about writing in a way which falls between “certain margins” of acceptability.

John McPhee - Hot, Cold and Just Right

John McPhee – Hot, Cold and Just Right

I wonder if he is a calm man? He doesn’t look obsessive. He looks calm and kind. How can that be? How can a perfectionist be anything but a nervous wreck? If you read the article, Mr. McPhee sounds like a nice guy, a sweet dad, but also like someone who has learned to strive toward perfection. Does he ever say, “This is good enough?” I doubt it.  But I wonder what he thinks about the maxim of “all things in moderation” – nothing too anything? I would like to hear John McPhee talk about the Goldilocks Principle.

I like the possibility that a life-sustaining element exists in me as it does in a planet that is “just right” in relation to the star it orbits. But I have the feeling I’m hurtling through space a little too hot or – sometimes – a little too cold. I whine a lot. Does discontent inspire me? Do I strive for perfection? That’s what I’m wondering on this hot day in Seattle.  One thing for sure: I wouldn’t be satisfied living in a barn in Carnation, coming out in the morning, chewing the green grass and going back into the barn at night.

Cows - Everything Is Good

Cows – Everything Is Good

Of course, something about that little scenario does sound sweet and appealingly simple. But no. Zoning out is not my thing. I failed at my first and only official attempt – a meditation class at UC Berkeley in 1968. I couldn’t keep out the metaphorical and literal noise of people protesting in the streets. Berkeley in the 60’s – talk about  a hot planet. Since then, I have not tried to meditate.

So – another hot day today.   If you have a logical mind, you’ll see that I’m contradicting myself, because I long for the weather to be just right. Shouldn’t I be loving the extremes? Shouldn’t I want heat so hot it makes me write a poem? Rain so wet I write the great American novel?

Oh, contradictions, schmontradictions. When it gets above 80 in Seattle, I sit in the shade and fail to make sense. I hear cows mooing from 50 miles off.  I fall asleep and dream that I am calm and kind.

Too Hot in Seattle

Too Hot in Seattle

Skinny Books, Dust, Dandelions, Sneezes, Apple Cake and Inspiration

Books...

Books…

The other day, with many tasks calling to me, I decided to spend the afternoon doing something that is a ritual task-avoidance activity of mine, something not on any of my To-Do lists: I decided to move books from one place in my house to another place. I do this from time to time; my husband is used to it and he just rolls his eyes and ignores my sneezing (dust) and my talking to myself (about how silly I am to be doing it when I have so much else to do.) Several months ago, we had to eliminate an entire set of bookcases to make room for french doors out to the deck. Total chaos! It seems I’m always carrying big bunches of books from one place to another.

and more books....

and more books spilling over….

When I say “big bunches,” I mean big. This time around, I moved my collection of poetry (about 400 books) from the living room to my study. Why? Well, I didn’t want to do anything on my To-Do list, that was probably the biggest motivator. And I had been looking for some time at how messy the poetry books were.

and the poetry books....

and some of the poetry books….

Minus the Collected Works of someone, and minus anthologies, poetry books are a skinny lot – many don’t even have 1/2-inch spines, and they’re visually “busy”  compared to fiction (which took poetry’s place in the living room.) Fiction is less cluttered, less multitudinous, less random in its trim sizes. The effect of a house over-filled with books is not always calming, and I was going for calm.

and books on chairs...

and more poetry books in stacks and more books on chairs…

No matter what the motivation was, I found myself with stacks and stacks of books, wondering yet again (as I do periodically) about how to organize the poetry. Fiction, no problem – I do it alphabetically. But with poetry I wonder if the  alphabet of last names should prevail.  There are other possibilities on any given shelf of my poetry bookcases:

1. Poets I love 2. Poets who loved each other. 3. Poets by the century in which they lived. 4. Poets by the places they lived – England, France, Russia, Spain, (maybe a shelf of everything in translation?) and the American South, New England, the American West – poets known as “regional.” 5. Poets who have won the Nobel Prize or have entered “the canon.” 6. Poets who are private little discoveries of mine, or so I think. 7. Poets who are friends of mine. 8. Poetry reviews in which I have poems of my own. 9. Poetry criticism by poets. 10.Poetry criticism by non-poets. 11. Big anthologies. 12. Miscellaneous (sometimes, my favorite category – unclassifiable.

In the end, after all the pondering, the alphabet prevailed, except for a few I like to keep handy on my desk.

and a few books on a messy desk....

and more books on a messy desk….

When I’m looking for something, I want to find it fast, so practicality won the day. Admitting this makes me feel slightly ashamed, but there it is. I do manage to keep a few special old books around the house.

and books with hands....

and old books next to old hands….

For one afternoon of carrying great bundles of books from one room to another, thinking about ways these writers related to each other (Should I put Ted Hughes’s Collected Works next to Sylvia Plath’s? Raymond Carver’s next to Tess Gallagher’s? Should I make sure the Welsh and Irish poets do not get mixed in with the English?) and ways I related to them (Do I really love W. H. Auden enough to add him to the shelf with Seamus Heaney and Richard Wilbur? Do I love Walter de la Mare in the same way I love C.K. Williams or Robert Graves?)…for that time of pondering, I was gloriously lost in the world of poetry.

and special books....

and a lion and a foot and complete set of The English Poets, of course……

I opened quite a few books and read a poem or two or ten. And I was inspired. How wonderful to be a poet – that’s what I was thinking at the end of the day.

So I sat down and wrote a poem.

Moral of the story? Avoiding your To-Do list (“Write!”) does not always mean you’re being unproductive. It doesn’t mean you’re wasting time, not always, not if what you have in front of you (a good book…or 400 good books!) inspires you. And inspiration doesn’t always come from something intellectual – not always a book. It could come while your surveying the almost-spring garden, Sometimes it come when you’re in the kitchen – the color of an apple or the smell of an apple cake makes you feel creative and makes you sit down to write a picture book (yes, Julie Paschkis, I mean you.)

I honestly believe that everything a writer does is a source of inspiration. Moving books from one room to another, baking a cake, playing the ukulele, drawing, reading a personal essay in The Threepenny Review (oh, it is so good),  pulling dandelions, pruning a tree, taking a walk, talking to a neighbor. Don’t feel guilty when you spend time not writing. Eventually, the desire to write will overwhelm you – when it does, pay close attention. Heed the call.  Do it. Write. Let it take you over completely.

The author Gordon Lish, photographed by Bill Hayward

And an author and his book (Gordon Lish, photographed by Bill Hayward)

You might not be prolific if you follow my advice. But you’ll stay engaged with the world of real people and real objects. Engagement – that’s a good goal, and I think it’s what makes for good writing – and a good life.  Touch things, move things, make music, bake things, get your hands dirty, unsettle the dust, sneeze.

and books that need dusting! (Achoo! Salud!)

…and books that need dusting! – on my To-Do list!

Then come back to your writing, inspired.

———————————————————————-

Through a Child’s Eyes

Image

A couple of weeks ago my husband, my daughter, my son-in-law, my grandson and I all took a trip to Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, to visit my husband’s family. I was thrilled to go – not only to meet all the new little grandnieces and grandnephews (in Spanish, I’m called “Tia Abuela” – Aunt Grandma!) but to do so with my daughter and her family in tow. The world is a whole different place seen through the eyes of a five-year-old, and that’s why being with Mary and Jackson is such a pleasure. Watching her look at him with delight, and watching him look at the world with wonder – well, there’s nothing better.

I’ve never seen much of note in Hermosillo – it’s not a beautiful old Mexican town, certainly not a World-Heritage site like some of the colonial towns in southern Mexico. There’s a pretty cathedral and a plaza with a bandstand. There’s a government office that’s been fixed up and looks like it might fit in to a tourist town.  But I’ve always thought of Hermosillo as Tucson South – strip malls, flat-roofed businesses, failing infrastructures, barren desert – not the moist, green landscape I’m used to in the Pacific Northwest. So when I go, I only care about seeing family (well, that and eating the wonderful food they put before us while we’re there!) But aesthetically, no, I’ve never seen anything I’d call exciting.  Hermosillo passes before me in a blur.

On the other hand, what you see above are the lists Jackson made of “Special Things” he saw. The long list was made on the drive over to Kino Bay – about an hour away from town, due west through the Sonora Desert to the Sea of Cortez. The short list was made during a quick car ride through the center of town.  Jackson has all the markings of a good writer – a sharp eye and desire to record what he is witness to. He keeps his head up and his eyes open.  I’m not going to explain everything on the lists – let some of them remain a mystery to you. But I can testify to the fact that he saw them.  If I told my students, “Write a story with five things on these lists,” I bet they could come up with some doozies. I made a copy and have it near my computer now – it reminds me that good writers always see the world with fresh eyes.

Below is a slightly more legible account – I was transcribing as we rode around, and we hit a LOT of bumps, so the handwriting is wobbly:

Around Town: 1. Crazy blue car. 2. Yummy food. 3. Fountain of mountain goats. 4. Blue truck with flames. 5. Palm trees. 6. Double long truck. 7. Dollar sign $$. Ostrich.

List of Special Things on the Way to Kino: 1. Buzzard on a light pole and two more on the grass. PAJARAZOS! 2. Heron 3.Vermillion flycatcher. 4.Cactus bush. 5.Mountains. 6. White rocks that say “I love you.” 7. Millions of orange trees. 8. Flying hawk. 9. Saguaros. 10. Seagull on top of a cactus. 11. Beach! 12.Shapes in the clouds. 13. Dead cow.

Vermillion Flycatcher

Vermillion Flycatcher

Zopilote (Buzzard)

Zopilote (Buzzard)

Orange Grove in the Desert

Orange Grove in the Desert

Kino Bay on the Sea of Cortez

Kino Bay on the Sea of Cortez

Shells on the Beach at Kino

Shells on the Beach at Kino

I’m going to keep the photo below as my new screensaver. It was taken in the plane on the way down to Mexico. This one reminds me that all a writer needs is a pen.  And a napkin.

Trip to Hermosillo 01-13 Jackson Drawing

Autumn Roses and The Hukilau

“Sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.” –Itzhak Perlman

Last June I started spending most Thursday mornings with the Mother Pluckers, a group of ten women aged 48 to 80 who have been strumming ukuleles and singing together for about four years. They are an amazing bunch, with a wealth of experience from their other, non-ukulele lives: jeweler, psychologist, university professor emeritus, artists, retired middle school teacher, art quilt maker, photographer, world-class sailor. What they have in common is their dedicated effort to learn new stuff on the ukulele, to make music together.

Making music: l. to r. Margaret Liston, Carolle Rose, Danielle Carr and me.

Today four of us provided the soundscape when the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Wells Fargo Advisors gave a ten-year old boy and his family a trip to Hawaii. The whole 35th floor of the Wells downtown offices took on a South Seas flair: the reception area a tiki hut, a corner office done over as an undersea grotto, the big conference room luau-ready, everyone in Hawaiian garb.

The boy, who is battling leukemia, seemed at first overwhelmed by all of this – or maybe it was our lusty rendition of The Aloha Week Hula? He hid behind his father. But he warmed up as we launched into The Hukilau and he donned swim goggles and ‘swam’ into the undersea room, searching for gifts under the hip-high balloons. He seemed quite pleased with the shave ice and pineapple pizza luau, as well.

Back home, Izzi and I headed out for our walk. There’s a bite in the air, and I expect there will be frost tonight. I clipped the last baby roses so we might enjoy them a few days longer. And I thought how here I am in the autumn of my life, still trying to bloom. And how my sisterhood of strummers shows the way. Writing, like music, comes out of the ideas and insights, skills and experiences that we gather through all our days. In fact, that’s how this blog post came to be.

A Writer’s Family Reunion

The Larios Family, Guadalajara, Mexico, late 1920’s.

My husband just got back from a big family reunion in Guadalajara, Mexico, where his extended family still lives. The photo above was given to us by my husband’s cousin Roasalba via her mother Nellie (the only one in the photograph still alive) – it shows my husband’s great-grandparents surrounded by the entire Larios family in the late 1920’s.

Last Sunday,  I headed to my own family reunion – the Culver-Garletts Gathering in the tiny town of Bay View, Washington – so I’ve been thinking lately about families and about the difference between history and memory.  I’ve also been thinking about how nostalgia interacts with memory and changes it.  A storyteller is deeply enmeshed in this whole mix.

Bay View Civic Hall is a small wooden building, one room with attached kitchen, at the corner of C Street and 4th. The waters of Padilla Bay border the west edge of town, and the great Samish River lazes through the Skagit Valley just to the southeast. This is tulip country, settled by the Dutch and by Scandanavians, and its greatest claim to fame is probably the huge Skagit Valley Tulip Festival each year. The snow geese and trumpeter swans come each winter like something right out of a fairy tale and dot the farm fields. Bay View Cemetery is just up the road a ways from the Civic Hall – that’s the cemetery where Lyman Culver (1821-1901, my great-grandmother’s father-in-law… I think) is buried, It’s about just the right size for a cemetery – about 900 souls buried there over its 150+- year history. My great-grandmother’s mother and father are also buried there – Cynthia Alice Garletts (1858-1950) and Henry C. Garletts (1877-1928.) No – wait – that can’t be right – Alice was married to Henry, but this Henry C. was nineteen years her junior, so maybe that’s her son in the grave nearby…? But that would make him my great-grandmother’s brother. I don’t think she had a brother named Henry. or maybe that’s the Henry I’ve heard about who was called Pete. Hmmm.

My Great-Grandmother – Hester Irene Culver (nee Garletts)

Lots of this gets muddy for me because two of the Garletts sisters (one was my great-grandmother Hester Irene Garletts, pictured above, the other was Myrtle) married two Culver brothers (one of them was Lyman’s son, Daniel – or was it his grandson?) Daniel, my great-grandfather, stands like a figure out of a Steinbeck novel in the photo below. I don’t mean to get sentimental about all this – my grandmother divorced him, and people’s opinions of Daniel vary according to which side of the Garletts-Culver hyphen you are on.  So there’s no sentimentality involved in how I feel when I look at that photo. There might be a touch of nostalgia – or is it regret? – wishing I knew more about this man, wishing I had memories of him.

Daniel Culver, My Great-Grandfather, near the mill in Olalla, Kitsap County, Washington

Sunday’s gathering didn’t really help me straighten out who’s who.  My brother put together a lovely display of photographs, and I tried to put faces to names – that usually makes things easier by making people feel real, something a writer tries to do by naming and painting a picture with words. But the problem is, these people are history to me, not memory. As soon as I saw a photo of someone I actually knew (for example, Nonny and her daughter, Mary Alice, who was my wonderful grandmother) then memories rushed in, and the people were real.

This was the first gathering of the descendants of the Culver-Garletts union, though there have been many Pioneer Picnics in Bay View which were not specific to a particular family.  Relatives came to our reunion that I’d never met, and I saw photos I’d never seen before, and there was an abundance of fried chicken, lemonade and multiple versions of macaroni/tabouli/jicama/potato salad – Italian/Levantine Arab/Mexican/German cuisine – we’ve gone global. One of my sons, Josh – interested in genealogy – attended. My cousin’s daughter went, too, so we had a sprinkling of Gen-X-ers from our side of the family tree. [Gen-X - I wonder what Lyman would have thought of cell phones and blogs and iPads??] To take history back even farther, many of us are related to Nicholas Vance Sheffer, (1825-1910), a certified pioneer of Washington State who came out by wagon train to the Oregon territories. Or was that his father? Why can’t I keep this straight? They shared a name, and as you can tell, I get confused. For Christmas not too long ago my mother presented my brother, sister, me and all of our children with Pioneer Certificates issued by the State of Washington during its Centennial Year. If I’m counting right, my mother’s side of the family has been in this part of the world for seven generations – actually eight if you count my grandson. For the kids and for me, there is history in those pioneer certificates, but no memory. So I try to show them family photos, like the one below of  the Culver side of the family gathered many years ago near their home in Olalla.

The Culver Family

The reunion in Mexico gathered together about 80 people; yesterday only about 30 family members came to Bay View. We hoped there would be some lawn outside so we could play bocce, an old Italian game using heavy silver balls tossed like horseshoes. Bocce balls came over with Italian immigrants, along with the immigrants’ memories of (and nostalgia for) home.  As I write this, I realize how many countries and traditions come into play whenever a large American family gathers together in this new millennium. Imagine at the turn of the 20th century, with so many new immigrants to America, how the longing for home – the origin of the word “nostalgia” – must have permeated everything. Photos were among the few items people had to remember home.

As writers, we try to turn history into story, pulling from both memory and imagination to put faces to names. I loved historical fiction as a kid – because those stories felt possible, felt as if the writer’s imagination could fuse history and memory and make them a single engine rather than two machines on more-or-less parallel tracks. Fantasy didn’t have that kind of heat for me. Of course, history is one thing – at its purest (though is it ever pure?) history is “Just the facts, Ma’am”, and memory is a single perspective on those facts. Toss in nostalgia (originally considered a physical disease) and you’re in dangerous territory – facts and memories get distorted by wistfulness, and suddenly all the lines blur. When nostalgia seeps into fiction – especially into stories for kids – it can be suffocating if not handled carefully, since nostalgia is usually an artifact of age.

History (those irrefutable “born” and “died” dates underneath the pictures of so many of my ancestors) tapped at the windows of the Bay View Civic Hall yesterday, and memories floated around waiting for someone to pluck them out of the air. Combine the tapping and the floating with nostalgia about red barns and snow geese and the Old Country, and it was quite a day for a writer. Below is a picture of my little side of the clan. I remember the day it was taken, on the beach near Gig Harbor. Neighbors came and gave us some of the oysters they had gathered that day. My cousin Randy paddled in by kayak. We toasted marshmallows…maybe I can write a story about it. Maybe my grandson will share this photo with his great-grandchildren. Maybe they will look at us and wish they had known us.

The Unofficial Larios – Hofstrand Family Gathering