Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sky Walking

Watching shiny ribbons of blackstrap molasses fold into one another in a silver measuring cup. The kids rolling out dough, shaping their ginger kin. A week of late nights baking, knitting scarves, wrapping, rushing to and from, and voila: Christmas Eve, signaling an end to last minute everything.

I’m seeing the sky again—a good sign—easy to go for weeks without looking up. There’s a section of our country road I watch for now, just after a steep set of S turns sloping down. As you ascend the next curve, the oak trees on either side of the road lean towards one another, leaving a gap of sky in the shape of an hourglass. It is nearly five, and darkening rapidly: the hour of leaping deer. The pavement wet, wisps of mist hovering just above three rows of nested hills, the farthest tree-line a dusky blue, so familiar it warms.

Easy also, between hand-me-down Safari brochures (Africa! India! Egypt!), books on spiritual pilgrimage, and e-mail advertisements for prophecy retreats, to feel anywhere but here is better. If I just had the right guide, the right ticket, I could travel to the right place, imbibe the right information, and grow, bigtime. In The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit, Shirley MacLaine writes about why the physical landscape (the 500 mile famed trek along the Santiago de Compostela Camino in Spain) so dramatically affects walkers and propels them into grappling with unresolved life issues (here via the character of St. John of the Cross) :

“the ley lines [along the walk] were directly aligned with the constellations of stars, which would help resolve conflicts if properly understood…The dreams and visions of people walking the trail created footmarks of past truth, which created reminiscences, which were part of the human subconscious lurking within each of us as foreshadowings. (p. 85).” Further… “people always return to old haunts because they intuit that the karma there needs to be resolved.”

For a former spiritual “quester” (dream group, channeling group, reiki trade, chronic swapper with fellow book divas of destiny such as Kieran, Childs, Duane), motherhood grounds me squarely on this acre, or this 30 mile radius of S curves. I’m thinking you could “walk the Camino” in dream. Wondering if your astral self would soak in that kind of info-energy (to borrow a term from Gary E. Schwartz, author of The Afterlife Experiments). Or, is the physical body a better conduit, and it’ll (the trip to Spain) just have to wait until the kids are in college? Maybe you’re better off just sleeping when you sleep, since the daytrip with the kids burns so many brain calories, and you need the “down-charge” of dreamless rest.

Or could that lovely hourglass gap between the trees be its own portal? I’m just asking. But now that I’ve asked, I’ve probably set in motion a pilgrimage of dreams. Let them be be hearty, but sweet.

Photo: taken by Sarah Doherty, Castro Theater close-up, San Francisco

Friday, December 18, 2009

"Winter Solstice" Sculpture Poem

Last May, I gave sculptor Sandy Frank a handful of poems (so she could choose one to pen across one of her magnificent male torsos). We're not through yet--but I wanted to post the poem and photo in honor of the approaching solstice. Combining the static element of written words and penning them across a 3-d surface has its challenges, and Sandy tells me the alchemy is far from perfected (she has other ideas in store), but here is a "draft" of our project so far.

Winter Solstice

Live long enough and you outlive
ewhere a lover, one you cast aside
or one you chased. One who didn't want you--
at least, not then--or one you cried to leave,
but left.
No matter what the parting, there's a last meeting

in the eggplant black of dream, where we divide up all the eggs,
and ride a Lapland sled, our unborn children

falling in the snow. We'll not stop--

we have no choice: you're dying

and outside
the dream my husband's body
turns towards mine. The Earth's
one lover lighter. The Northern lights

remain, the silver sound-prints of the reindeer's bell.

Forgive the iphone snapshots--I promise a link to studio quality photos (the full sculptures extend to upper thigh, complete with male genitalia) and a January post with Sandy's thoughts on the sculpture-poetry process (post-holiday frenzy).

Sandy's work:

Friday, December 4, 2009

“Niagara Falls” and “Birth Angel” Up

Niagara Falls—written for my late stepfather Jon—is up at Tiny Lights:
…When I couldn’t sleep at dawn, you brought me for a walk along the rim. Then took your own photo of the silver shelf at the top, so still who’d guess at the crystal thunder below, how delicate the thresholds, and our balance, dreaming, taking turns, half the planet flooding the astral at a time…

Excerpt paired here with Jon’s photo—taken that early morning. Bless you, Jon, and brother Jaye.

Also I’m sweetly honored/pleased to announce I’ve accepted an invitation from editor Jessica Powers to try the wearing of a new hat: as poetry editor at The Fertile Source (view Jessica’s welcome and one of my blockprints, “Birth Angel:” ). Birth Angel dates back to the “one-child” year (before the next two children came along), when I entertained the possibility of earning a living making handmade greeting cards. The 50 cent industry profit, along with motherhood, swiftly whittled my list of loves down to two essentials: family and poetry.

Though I still am tempted (now that I’m able to consider the world above the diaper line again) to rummage loose the tubes of color and the little black Speedball roller. Washing the printboard off, watching the blues and golds and greens swirl down into the sink drain still trumps the finished artwork, I have to admit. Even tried photographing it--but like rainbows in oil slicks or Tibetan sand paintings you just have to Be Present all alone with your joy and the morphing colors vanishing before your eyes, sappy as it sounds.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Boats of Mercy and the Gift of Journaling

...Look,/boats of mercy/embark from/our heart at the/oddest knock...
Kay Ryan, The Niagara River (2005), from "Chinese Foot Chart"

So when a wave recedes, and you’re standing there with your ankles moored, it’s best to close your eyes against vertigo…or risk losing your balance, confusing your body’s point of anchorage and giving in to the headlong return to the sea.

That’s how it has felt this month to write against the rest of my life and its responsibilities.

Over hazelnut decaf mocha, I discussed happiness with two of my favorite mom writer/artists. (See Jessica Powers' recent review (Can women be smart, empowered, AND happy? ) of Ariel Gore’s latest book, Bluebird: women and the psychology of happiness, on this very subject). Are we to only be fulfilled by our children? On the other hand, I asked my friends, “Will our kids think we are narcissists for pursuing our writing?” We each hoped not, because the few hours away are worth the recharge (the ability to return to our families having tended to ourselves). We each hoped we could deepen our artistic/writerly endeavors, while mothering our children with love and poise. Is it possible? To do both well? That’s what I’m after; it isn’t easy.

The retreating wave feeling descended this month for a number of reasons:

1) the holidays—though we had harmony at our Thanksgiving table and did not, after all, as was suggested in this week's NY Times article (Food, Kin and Tension at Thanksgiving), resort to playing “cruel comment” Bingo, which you win by running into another room to dial a friend with news you’ve heard a row’s worth of wretched, time-worn remarks from family members. I love my family and love time with them; fitting everyone in becomes the mind-scramble, on top of the pandemonium of the kids loose from school and schedule.

2) changes in my husband’s schedule for the coming year

3) my tiny laptop (seven years old) finally crashing (was it the frayed, duct-taped power cord? No, said the employees at Radio shack, in their loyal, customer-ethical way, both talking me out of buying their $100 power cord. “Try moving everything using a flash disk”, they suggested sagely. Tilting the greenish line-warped laptop screen just so once the kids and the husband were safely snoring, I salvaged my files).

4) loss of a writer friend (see last post)—lovely Barbara Robinette Moss, 54, artist, writer, in full bloom with her work. Over the last ten years, while she bravely battled her illness, she furthered her work and her skills, and had the time to look at whatever essay or poem I mailed off to her. Every time I talked to her she had a new conquest: “just finished a screenwriting course in New York,” “took an acting class,” “just opened an art-gallery with my Duane,” “will be teaching in Taos this summer.”

Inspired by Barbara’s daring, I am starting a new project for the New Year—poetry recordings with music. As soon as I learn how to get the right widget on the blog, how to get the microphone to talk to my computer, transform the wave file to mp3 etc, I will be posting these new collaborations—poetry set to piano music with my father Steve. We are looking at the Egypt series—debut poem, “Nefertiti Among Us.” It isn’t that I’m giving up on the world of print or on-line journal submissions (though these poems have been passed on three times so far) it is just that I don’t want to wait to play any longer.

I have kept a journal since I was five, and when life gets hectic, that is often the only connection I have to my writing. When I am feeling tired, when that retreating wave feeling comes and I fear I will never finish writing the words I am meant to write in this lifetime, I tend to feel journal writing is not enough. But I’m coming to see one’s writing truly is a mosaic, and it doesn’t matter if you write words down on a candy wrapper, in a journal, as a prelude to a poem, call it what you will, you do not know where it might end up years from now when you finally figure out where it belongs. Francine du Plessix Gray speaks to this in her essay “Black Mountain: The Breaking (Making) of a Writer” from the Collection Adam, Eve, and the City.

du Plessix Gray writes: “by 1926 I had two children. I lived in deep country and in relative solitude, encompassed by domestic duties. The journal was becoming increasingly voluminous, angry, introspective. The nomadic tomboy, finally denied flight and forced to turn inward, was beginning to explode. One winter day, I felt an immense void, great powerlessness, the deepest loneliness I’d ever known. I wept for some hours, took out a notebook…(p. 331).” She goes on to describe how the re-workings of those writings became the first chapter of Lovers and Tyrants, and how her mentor Charles Oslon had encouraged her to faithfully keep a journal. I can relate to the intense feeling of isolation and motherhood she describes, as well as the power of steady journaling. Inevitably you reach the core, your potential.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Heartprints: Barbara Robinette Moss, Airplanes, and the Midwest

Just back from a remembrance celebration for artist and writer Barbara Robinette Moss, (Change Me Into Zeus’s Daughter, Fierce—for excerpts see: or an earlier post) recovering from the collision of aloneness and togetherness that occurs when you fly across the country for love of someone no longer incarnate to be in a room full of grieving strangers. By night’s end, familiars, via the common, palpable, bond of love for our late friend as expressed by speaker after speaker (furthering Barbara’s presence in our midst) in Kansas City.

Planes leave. On time. As did mine, without pity, as my husband and I encountered malfunctioned gas pumps on the freeway (20 minute lockdown) and the 5 a.m. mistaken merge onto the Bay Bridge heading away from the airport, with maniacal hairpin u-turn at the bottom of Treasure Island costing us another 20 minutes.

Once I got over the shock of missing my plane (how could I plan so carefully for the kids but fail to plan for my own departure--pages of notes re: pickup, drop off, carpool, carpool mom phone numbers, Aikido outfits packed, play-dates listed, dinner menus, backup helpers, backup backup helpers, etc), I used the 9 extra hours at the Oakland airport to put a dent in The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life After Death by Gary E. Scwartz, Ph.D (with William L. Simon). A friend had hooked me on one of the book’s central images: that of the heartbeat, with its own unique sound-print, radiating out and out into space long after our physical incarnation has ended (maybe for eternity, is the theory).

“Is it possible,” the authors ask, “that cardiac energy provides a loving bond that not only exists in the physical realm but continues as info-energy after physical life has ceased?” p. 22. They started “with the hypothesis, the working assumption, that science can establish that love exists, that consciousness exists, and that survival of consciousness exists, in the same way that science has established that gravity exists, that electrons exist, that photons from ‘deceased’ stars continue to exist” (p. 11). I’m a believer, so such reading preaches to the choir, but for skeptics out there, check it out.

Hours later, with an afterlife hangover, overdosed on airport food and bad coffee, I found myself on the last leg of my flight to Iowa City. Incapable of finding the silver lining in my botched departure. Until my cab driver began to talk. About how he was really a singer in a duo. It was all coming back to me—the nature of Iowa City and its inhabitants: if you’ve ever lived in Iowa City any length of time, you discover everyone from your mail carrier to your street-sweeper has a manuscript. Hidden somewhere. So far this cab driver had admitted he was really a singer and a musician. But then he adds, “I’m glad to drive you, I was hoping I’d get an English major, actually. You know, I write a bit too.”

I perked up. Then: “My town--North Liberty—has a great library. Just got done reading a real good book by this lady…I’m sure you don’t know her…but we invited her to come and give a reading from her book, Zeus’s Daughter. Barbara Robinette Moss? Ever heard of her? I was hoping to take a class from her some time.” I put one hand on my heart and the other on his arm. “Stop it,” I said, “she’s the reason I’m here.” Far more eloquent stories about Barbara’s continuing presence and her effect on everyone she knew circulated at her remembrance, but I felt blessed by this tiny synchronicity.

It turns out perfect planning didn’t have much to do with catching planes on time, for three days later I found myself once again in the 5:30 a.m. dark, panicking, just off Highway 218, staring by the glow of my i-phone at the muffler of my friend’s car at our feet. Bless Google, and yellow taxi. Though last to board, I managed to catch my flight to Kansas City.

In anticipation of further trouble, I padded an extra hour for my return trip to the airport to fly home to Oakland. The hour came in handy: the friend (Tom--innocent! no ticket!!) driving me to the airport not only got pulled over by the cops, but took 4 wrong turns merging onto the freeway and needed an extra half hour to find a gas station.

But I’d do it all over again—for the magical, synchronous hours I had with friends in Iowa City—sleeping in Mary’s tiny Midwest garret, the cold, crisp air, the cherub angel and Escher print above the green armchair. The blue-black crosshatched pattern of the branches on the barren tree outside the window. For breakfast quiche with Bonnie, doves cooing in the background. For reconnecting with my poet friends Tonja ( and Laurie, my dancing friend Renee, other friends of heart Ann and Carol and Jeff. For the realization that the writer self I nurtured in Iowa City still thrives and remains as deeply important to me as the mother self I’ve reigned from internally for the last ten years.

And last, for the friends and family of Barbara I came to meet, and stories I heard about Barbara—whose heartprint I can sense, believe, is radiating out and out into the Milky Way.

Further Reading:

2004 interview with Barbara Robinette Moss:

An article about the gallery Barbara and husband Duane opened together:

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"Engorged" up at Literary Mama

I had to add this pregnancy photograph (taken by Robyn Beattie) to balance out the feral poem Engorged up at Literary Mama this week; the poem was written on behalf of anyone who has ever been there...and for those husbands, partners, and family members coaxing new or seasoned moms through the pain of such nursing. For me, it was the third child that brought on the condition, a shocker, after thinking I was a pro. Thank God for that British nurse: bless you, where-ever you are.

Further reading:

Just started Jayne Anne Phillips novel Motherkind; the main character is heading towards mastitis as we speak...

and once again, Robyn's portfolio can be viewed at

and Literary Mama's website:

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Why I Love Co-sleeping

I do miss my husband—who spends his nights usually in one of the three beds upstairs that I fail to occupy. But after he’s finished his nightly round of TinTin bedtime stories rife with stellar vocabulary for the under age-eight crowd (monocle, Yeti) and names you can’t restrain yourself from saying more than once (Bianca Castafiore, Snowy), I wouldn’t miss the night time conversations I overhear wedged between two of the three kids for anything:

my 6 year old son, to his 3 year old brother, on heaven:

But, down here’s way cooler than heaven. I mean, you get to do sports, like knit.

Can you tell he’s attending a Waldorf school at the moment? And that my sport loving husband (swimming and cross-country coach) will shortly be withdrawing our son’s enrollment when, I mean if, he ever reads my blog?

Co-sleeping criticisms come via the family. Early on I was stunned by the voracity of several generations of my husband’s family members inquiring about our sex life. Out of respect for them, I usually pretend I didn’t hear the question. “How are we managing what? I didn’t quite catch that.” And follow-up with, “Another hors-de-oeuvre?” My husband, far cheekier than I, chimes in with, “What do you think the kitchen floor is for?” which puts high color in everyone’s cheeks and signals my exit to the counter to trade in my champagne flute for a shot-glass.

I’ll admit, one time when I felt I just couldn’t bear sharing the bed with the kids any longer, I did the math. The nights with my children under our roof are finite, like there’s a number I could count to. It was pretty high, like more than a thousand, but still, finite (and they’ll have moved on to their own beds for many of those nights). One day my sons might wake up and decide they want nothing to do with me, mom. And the same for my daughter. So I’ll enjoy the conversation and I’ll take the many wee hour trips holding sticky hands on the way to the bathroom, good for encouraging hygiene, and from the Olympic sport of “Edge Sleeping” that stiff spine, good for encouraging the midnight detour to the kitchen for some stretching, and if I’m lucky, maybe even an uncensored romp.

"Rising Sign" and "Thoughtloops of a Breastfeeding Mom" Live

Paired with the photo of an escargot begonia taken by Robyn Beattie, "Rising Sign" is our second photo/writing collaboration to date: The Mom Egg’s online zine appears as a PDF—our poem/photo displays on page 45. Also check out 4 prose poems by my writing cohort Liz Brennan on page 18, as well as the other fine work featured there. Liz's blog: and Robyn's photo portfolio: .

On the light/humor side of life, “Thought-loops of a Breastfeeding Mom” raises questions regarding the division of labor (house, marriage) when the first newborn arrives and shakes up the routine-- permanently!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Core Secrets: Lethargy and The Grip of the Actual

My youngest son turns four this March; lately I’ve been dogged by a familiar anxiety involving the manuscript sitting on my desk. A thick, rough, core manuscript (started over ten years ago) I haven’t had the urge or the tenacity to face while sleep-deprived (the expectation: a poem a week, sure, perhaps even a short essay or two, but nothing longer).

Even having the time to notice the anxiety means I’ve the time to return to the larger manuscript. I’m trying to shake lethargy…as I prepare to go back in.

And I’m battling the Grip of the Actual—that malady of clinging to the metaphors, images, synchronicities of the events of the past exactly as they descended in my life. Shouldn’t I master fiction first? I asked my friend Mary (author of the memoir The Rooms of Heaven: A Story of Love, Death, Grief and the Afterlife). She understood the impulse to use the buffer of fiction, but added that she hadn’t had much luck morphing memoir into fiction.

Yet these procrastinations masquerading as thoughts persist: Am I lazy if I don’t take the time to master fiction, or science fiction? Yes, if I side with one of my writer heroines, Ursula K. LeGuin. In “Dragons are one of the truths about us,” she writes, “The imagination can transfigure the dark matter of life. And in many personal essays and autobiographies, that’s what I begin to miss, to crave, is transfiguration. To recognize our shared, familiar misery is not enough. I want to recognize something I never saw before. I want the vision to leap out at me, terrible and blazing,--the fire of transfiguring imagination. I want the true dragons… p. 268” (from the wave in the mind). I love that line: To recognize our shared, familiar misery is not enough…

And yet, it seems we write what we want to write. One afternoon last month, sitting around in a Santa Cruz living room with two couples my husband and I adore, I asked the question: What, if I cared about what the market would bear, should I write about next? Six votes for sex, and one-a-piece for vampires, ghosts, the plight of water, the economy, the worldwide balance of power, schizophrenia, mental health, education, and health. But here a month later, I’ve not started a story on any of the above.

And so the marauding “shoulds” continue: should I write short stories to practice writing a novel? Shouldn’t I write at least two novels? So I’ve the distance to return to the core manuscript in its current un-nameable form (poetry smattered personal essay meets graphic memoir storyboard) and tell it from the perfect point of view? Or should I stick with the fairytale? You always know where you stand (bad guys are powerful and evil, good guys are poor and kind). And the unfortunate hero or heroine comes with fatal flaws, some common-sense block or predisposition to thinking the best of others…which is the case with most of us ambling through our childhoods.

In Courageous Dreaming: How Shamans Dream the World into Being, Alberto Villoldo reminds us there are “three fairy tales that become core scripts for our bad dreams...
1. The story of Kind Midas, which turns into the nightmare titled, “I Don’t Have Enough”, 2. The story of the Lion King, which turns into the nightmare titled, “I’m too Old and My Time Has Passed, or 3. The story of Cinderalla, which turns into the nightmare titled, “I’m Too Wounded to Have Power. (p. 38).” Over the years, I’ve learned the cellular sensation of power from the instances of turning to fight the stalker; now in my waking life as a writer, I could stand to take Villoldo’s challenge to channel that power as I grapple with The Manuscript.

A successful memoir, I learned this week, blossoms around the right question the author sets out to answer. In an article titled, “The Mother Memoir: Protecting Our Children From Ourselves” (Nov/Dec 09 Poets and Writers Magazine) Debra Gwartney discusses the process of writing Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Lives. Gwartney learns from an instructor that her “memoir’s query was not…Why did my daughters leave me? That would solicit a story that tried to explain [my daughters] while protecting and defending me. Instead the question I had to answer as a memoirist was this: Who is the woman whose daughters would leave her?” Gwartney mentions the ten years it took for her to write and rewrite her book. What strength, bravery, and persistence to allow her work to ripen.

Which leaves me nowhere to go, but to the next couple steps: 1. ferret out the right question to answer. 2. Trust that the self I’m falling down the rabbit hole after will have the thigh muscles (thick as bergamot) to climb back out. I’m afraid, but when has that stopped any of us writers. When fear looms, the wrong self sits at the helm (with some fixed,“The End,” in mind). I also know once I start, the other self takes over, who discovers “The And”, a much broader perspective arrived at by mucking through the morning’s hours of raw writing…

should I be willing….

to begin again.

Further reading:

Shaman, Healer, Sage by Alberto Villoldo, PhD (with practical exercises). Also by this author: The Four Insights, Dance of the Four Winds (with Erik Jendresen), and Yoga, Power, and Spirit.

Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, by Debra Gwartney.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Three Views of Jessica Powers: Press Founder, Editor, Writer

In this interview, Jessica Powers discusses the rich, varied threads of her life as a writer. Inspirational in her dedication to all three “selves,” Powers is the author of the teen-age focused novel The Confessional, founding editor of the on-line zine The Fertile Source, and founder of Catalyst Book Press http://www.catalystbookpress (publisher of the January 2009 anthology Labor Pains and Birth Stories).

What drew you to put out a call for birth stories?

When I put the call out for submissions, I hadn’t thought a lot about birth. My best friend had three children by then, and I do remember what a shock it was to me how much our friendship changed after the birth of her first baby. I was still living the swingin’ single 20s life and I guess I expected us to still gal-pal around town like normal. So I was shocked when she brought her baby to our first lunch date a couple weeks after Abby was born. I’m not sure what I expected she would do with her baby while she was living it up with me—leave her at home? take her to her mother-in-law’s? I guess you could say I didn’t grow up as fast as she did.

Anyway, when my brother and his wife had a daughter six years ago, my sister-in-law made a comment that she really should write down her baby’s birth story before she forgot any of the details. A light bulb went off in my head at that moment and I realized that birth was a profoundly transformative event in people’s lives, that it was probably the most spiritual thing a person could do even though it has a raw physicality to it. I went home and looked up “birth stories” on the internet and discovered, to my shock, that thousands of women were posting their birth stories on the internet.

I realized immediately that here was a book. I started out editing it with my best friend but she had to bow out because she was expecting her fourth child etc etc. But I’m glad to say that while I was receiving the very first submissions for the book, I was able to be at the birth of her fourth daughter, a natural birth, a water birth, which took place at Maternidad La Luz ( in downtown El Paso. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to have children due to chronic pain issues. Tabitha knew that and felt like it was important that I get at least one chance to see a birth. I’ll always be grateful that I got to witness the miracle in action before I really started editing this book.

What did you learn as you went through the process from start to finish (culling stories to final publication)?

I learned a tremendous amount about pregnancy, the process of giving birth, and what it means to become a parent. I also learned how political birth is, something I never realized before. I personally don’t take sides on the political issues—I feel that every woman should have the right to choose the best kind of birth for herself and her family. So if a woman wants a home birth, I think she should be able to have it, and the legal apparatus should be in place so that she’s not denied a safe, effective home birth. But if a woman wants an epidural in a hospital, go for it. Okay, I don’t know how I feel about elective cesareans but I’m not going to judge, let’s put it that way.

Despite the fact that I didn’t have a political agenda when I edited the book, I’ve noticed that people do have a political response to the book. I didn’t have any criteria for the essays except that I wanted each essay I selected to reach the highest literary standards. I’ve found Christians who like the pro-natal aspect of the book but object to the fact that I’ve included a couple of essays by lesbians. Natural or home birth proponents have objected to the fact that I include hospital births in the book. And hospital birth proponents have argued that the book is biased towards natural birth. Whatever. About half the births in the book are hospital births and half are natural births so I don’t see how there could be a “bias” from either side. And I included essays by Christians, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and who knows what. I honestly didn’t care about that part of it. I just wanted to show that whatever TYPE of birth a person experiences, and no matter what spiritual persuasion a person has, the process of giving birth is life-affirming (even when a baby dies, as happens with one of the birth stories in the book) and that process changes men and women in profound and measurable ways.

To be honest, I’m still learning. The book has been out for nine months (ironic, huh?) and I’m still learning tons about birth, pregnancy, and publishing. I guess that’s not going to change anytime soon.

What drew you to forming Catalyst Press?

I didn’t really expect to do it. I have a wonderful agent but she just wasn’t able to sell this book. It came close a couple of times—made it to the editorial table and then got nixed because nobody was sure how to market it. I remember thinking, “What do you mean, you don’t know how to market it? Don’t you market it to expecting and new parents? Can’t you market it to grandparents?” I have never met a person who, upon hearing this topic, doesn’t have a birth story to tell me.

So after my agent told me she’d exhausted the possibilities, I started thinking about how much I believe in this book, and that I wanted to see it out there. I sent it around to a few small presses and no cigar. That’s when I decided to start a small press. I didn’t want to be a one-book press, so I opened up for submissions and it snowballed from there. I have two books out now, four coming out in 2010, and 2 scheduled for 2011. All of the books I’m publishing in the next two years are related to fertility or sexuality. I didn’t expect that but I’m glad to be forming a niche market. That’s the only way a small press can really succeed.

It’s exhausting but I do like working with writers. I’ve met some cool people because I decided to do this…so no matter what happens with the press in the future—whether it’s wildly successful or not—I’m glad I did it.

What advice would you give others considering starting their own small press?

Don’t do it!!! Ha-ha. Okay, that really is my advice, and it’s the same advice I heard from my mentors Bobby & Lee Byrd, who run a very successful small press, Cinco Puntos Press (

But having said that, if you’re determined to do it, you should talk to those of us who have gone before you. And you should be intrepid and bold. Believe in the books you publish! Love the process! Don’t be discouraged by the fact that you won’t sell as many books as you’d like to sell. Be grateful for every book you sell and every good review you get and every person who writes to say they like your books. Expect to incur some debt. Curse that debt. Curse it thoroughly with as many fancy, colorful, four-letter words you know. But before you start, please remember that this debt will always be there and it never goes away. No matter how much money your books bring in, your costs always seem to be just that much more than what you make.

When did you know you were a writer?

Apparently, I used to write short stories and leave them around the house when I was only six or seven years old. I do remember creating a small book with construction paper and writing back cover copy on the book that read similar to the kinds of things you read on the backs of picture books and chapter books for early readers. “Michael was a bad boy. He liked to steal food from old ladies. But one day, Michael changed. Read this book. You will love this story…”

I lost my love of writing when I was eight and went to a school where, on Friday, my teacher would threaten to pull my fingers out with a pair of pliers if I didn’t learn my capital letters by Monday morning. At eight, I kind of believed he would really do that, and I remember pulling my hair out when I had to write a creative story—I had lost all my love for learning.

My mother was disturbed by what she saw, not only my emotional and intellectual deterioration but my brother’s as well. She pulled us out of school and taught us at home. This was in 1984, when it was still illegal in the state of Texas to home school, and when people told my mom that she was a bad mother for doing it. I know homeschooling is popular now—but back when my mother did it, nobody was doing it. We kept ourselves well-hidden, told people we went to private school, and attended court cases where homeschooling parents were being sent to jail and their kids placed in foster care. Eventually, homeschoolers successfully sued the state of Texas and a judge ruled that homeschooling was legal because it was, essentially, private school.

At home, my mother unraveled the pressure I’d been under at school. She encouraged me to read and re-discover who I was. The summer I was ten, my dad took me and my brothers on a trip to South Dakota, where I visited the Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead. When I came home, I told my mother that I wanted to be a writer “like Laura” when I grew up. That fall, for English, my mother let me write a novel. My novel was set in the pre-Civil War era and told the story of a family who helped runaway slaves escape to Canada by hiding them in the Grand Piano in their living room.

It was a horrible novel but I was hooked…. By the time I went to college at 16, I’d written half a dozen novels.

What is your favorite genre of writing (to write) and why?

Oh, I definitely like writing for teens most of all. Teens change more in two weeks than most adults change in a year. It’s such a horrible, wonderful, scary hormonal time. I love exploring that world. I love teens. I wouldn’t want to still BE a teen, but they’re really fun to be around.

I also write non-fiction for adults. Somebody once told me that you know your calling by the books you’re drawn to. They didn’t mean “you know your calling as a writer.” They meant that if you’re drawn to books about social justice in Africa, maybe you’re called to work in Africa and help bring social justice to that continent. Or if you read about women’s rights all the time, you should work for women’s rights. You get the idea. Well, I’m drawn to fiction for young adults….and non-fiction for adults on all topics but especially religion, health & healing, fertility, race, immigration, and violence. (Hey, those are the topics I’m drawn towards in y.a. fiction, too, so go figure…) As a writer, I’ve decided that’s my “calling”….to write about these things.

What inspired you to write The Confessional?

The Confessional is a young adult novel that explores racial tension and school violence at an all-boys Catholic high school along the U.S.-Mexico Border. After a Mexican terrorist blows up one of the international bridges linking El Paso, Texas to Juarez, Mexico, the racial tension at the Catholic school between the Mexicans and the Americans spills over into violence. There’s a vicious school fight that leads to a murder, and in the ensuing investigation, the six characters who tell the story in alternating viewpoints must examine their friendships, their loyalties, and their faith.

I wrote it while I was teaching at a school exactly like that in El Paso, Texas. The fall I started teaching there, we had just started the war in Iraq a few months earlier. I remember being surprised to see the “us vs. them” mentality among the young men I taught. I also remember being surprised to see ideas about the war breaking along national loyalties. The Mexican students who crossed the border every day to attend Cathedral High School were opposed to the war. My American students were pro-war, with a few exceptions. I could also see that there weren’t many friendships crossing that nationality barrier. The Mexican students stuck with the Mexican students while the American students stuck with the American students. I wanted to confront this “us vs. them” mentality that I felt was dominating the U.S. at that time, reflected in the friendships and loyalties displayed by my students. One of the American characters in my novel is gay; going to an all-boys school means he keeps his sexuality secret; but during the course of the novel, he’s placed in an unusual position of wondering whether his sexuality makes him even more of a “them” then the Mexican students in the “us vs. them” mentality that provides the context of the novel.

Once you realize the “us and them” mentality is unhealthy, you begin to recognize it everywhere. We all have identities that make us who we are but that should be used to enrich us and not divide us. For example, I’m Catholic. But does my Catholicness mean that I’m separated from people around me who aren’t Catholic? I’m also very liberal, socially speaking. Does that really need to separate me from the people I know who are very conservative? I feel like I’ve been able to embrace relationships with a lot of people who are very different from me, whose identities and loyalties are in different “camps” than my own—but I don’t see that happening with most people. I know a lot of liberals who can’t have a civil conversation with a conservative, and vice versa. I know a lot of Christians who can’t have a close, real relationship with people who aren’t Christians. I find this profoundly sad. That’s the dynamic I wanted to explore in this novel.

What are you working on right now?

Actually, I have several projects going on right now. I’m working on a novel for young adults about bullying and fear and love. I’m also working on a memoir about my time in South Africa talking to people about healing—personal healing, spiritual healing, non-traditional healing. This latter book started because I recently finished a novel for teens about a young urban Zulu girl who receives the call to be a spirit healer, called a sangoma in Zulu, after her mother’s HIV turns into AIDS.

For Catalyst Book Press, I’m editing an anthology of stories about stillbirth and miscarriage. I’m also working to bring out a book by a rape-survivor about her decision to give birth at home, a book by a woman who suffered a terrible stillbirth at 8 months old, an anthology about birth and adoption (many of these essays are written by the women who have placed children in adoption), and a memoir by a woman who contracted HIV while she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa during the 1980s.

Upcoming calls for manuscripts out of Catalyst Press?

We actually are working on two anthologies right now—one about adoption and one about miscarriage. I have so many books coming out in the next two years that I can’t think about what’s next. I’m just trying to get through the next couple of years. I will probably have a call for more essays at the end of 2010—maybe on infertility—so please be on the lookout.

I would say that if you have a book manuscript that you’re interested in having me see, you should wait six months or so before you approach me with it. Right now, I’m swamped with manuscripts that I need to read. Having said that, though, I’m like any publisher—I’m always looking for the next great thing. If you’ve looked at what I do, and you’re CERTAIN that it’s right for me, then you should email me anyway.

Cal you talk a little bit about The Fertile Source (

The Fertile Source is a literary zine that I publish online. I publish fertility, infertility, and adoption related writings and artwork. The website doesn’t make any money so I don’t offer compensation to contributors—but I hope it gives them a lot of exposure. I know it has readers and I get a steady stream of contributions.

I’ll admit that I started The Fertile Source as a marketing tool to sell copies of Labor Pains and Birth Stories. I thought it would be just one more place where people could come to find out about the book. But it quickly became much more than that—that is, it quickly became a real literary magazine. From the beginning, people have sent me really quality short stories, poems, essays, even plays, and the occasional piece of artwork.

Also, it hasn’t sold a single copy of Labor Pains and Birth Stories that I know of—not through the bookstore embedded in the website, at least. But I don’t care. I love the fact that I’m offering a creative outlet for a lot of great writers who write about this topic. And I hope that men and women find the pieces published here helpful as they work through their struggles and as they experience their joys around these topics.

The more I’ve immersed myself in the topic of fertility, the more I’ve realized that it’s a fundamental part of our individual and collective identities. We organize our lives around the choices we make in regards to our fertility—when we become sexually active, what kinds or whether to use birth control, when and if to have children and how many children to have and with whom, the person or people we marry or partner with. And sometimes our lives are organized for us when those choices are taken away, whether through infertility or some other sadness.

Upcoming related events:

Birth Stories Workshops, offered through Catalyst Book Press and The Fertile Source. Instructors include Jessica Powers ( , Tania Pryputniewicz, Monica Murphy Lemoine (, and Corbin Lewars (founder/editor of the print zine Reality Mom, author of the forthcoming book Creating a Life: the Memoir of a Writer and Mom in the Making). Available in-person, as webinars, and via phone conferencing or SKYPE. To arrange a workshop, call Jessica at (925)606-5992 or email her at

Friday, October 16, 2009

Two Performances: Canyon Sam’s Sky Train and SF Free Civic Theater’s Reckless

During a rare week Liz and I failed to have new poems for one another, we kept our writing night date by sneaking off to Copperfields Bookstore to hear Canyon Sam, author of Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History. Sam spoke of the book’s 19 ½ year timeline and resultant winnowing down of more than two dozen original interviews with Tibetan women to the final four she included. I left Sam’s reading with an entirely new awareness of the struggle to free Tibet, and as Sam put it, how the face of the struggle shifted for her once she learned from one interviewee that no contingency plan existed for women to travel to safety with spiritual leaders (thus forcing husbands to choose between their wives and the heavy karmic debt incurred should they fail to protect their Rinpoche). The side effect of such a belief system left women, children and the elderly to suffer the brunt of the invasion and twenty or more years in labor camps. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter and the continued gravity of the situation facing the women of Tibet, Sam drew laughs from the audience with a passage describing 9th century monastery plumbing.

Reckless, written by Craig Lucas (performed by the San Francisco Free Civic Theatre this month), explores the psychological challenges that befall an American wife when her husband takes out a contract out on her life. I attended the October 11th matinee performance at the Randall Museum, and thought the play might also be titled Relentless for the onslaught of events befalling the lead (Rachel) in 28 cinematic scenes. Each scene ends with a twist, forcing the audience to face some uncomfortable emotions as the playwright looks at the lies that allow people to love themselves and others (I heard both hearty and hesitant laughs, but overall a quiet intensity emanating from the audience).

Lead actress Sarah Doherty, speaking about Rachel’s character flaws, mused: Throughout the rehearsal process we’ve all considered Rachel’s incessant talking as her main character weakness, as it gets her into trouble and strains her relationships with her spouse, her friends, her coworkers. An even bigger character weakness in Rachel is the lack of initiative to take care of herself or to critically think about situations she is put in. She is passed from caregiver to caregiver, father to husband, and is never given the chance to grow up, learn to fend for herself, or know what it means to be alone. It never occurs to her that she lacks those life and social skills. When given the chance to flee her own impending death, it is the very husband who wanted her dead who has to shove her out of their bedroom window in order to remain safe. Having a notion of personal responsibility over her own well being, and believing in the impact of her decisions are things that Rachel could certainly work on.

Despite Rachel’s lack of world experience she is incredibly compassionate and nonjudgmental when other characters are letting their skeletons out of the closet. She also has an admirable optimism and fresh outlook that is ultimately shaken and tested by the end of the play, but I don’t think the circumstances she’s given completely take those qualities away from her. She isn’t conflicted about trying to figure out who she is, in that she doesn’t feel the pressure or obligation to live up to what anyone else expects her to become. She fearlessly tries on different names, different therapists, different cities, figuring out what works and what doesn’t in shaping her own identity for herself.

I also learned from Sarah that the playwright had been abandoned in a gas station at the age of 10 months old—found by strangers, and adopted. Such a context is not necessary for enjoying or understanding Reckless, but it shed light on why the play so intensely grapples with lies, hidden motivations, abandonment, and the relationship between mother and son. I’m still waiting to hear back from Sarah on this one: In twenty years, who will Rachel be? Will she break down (or through) and reach out to her son?

Congratulations, cast of Reckless, to fine performances all around.

Reckless continues to run: October 16 & 17 7:30 p.m.
Oct 23, 24 at 7:30 p.m.
Oct 25: 3 p.m.
at Eureka Valley Recreation Center Auditorium
100 Collingwood Street in San Francisco

Admission: Free.

to reach SF Free Civic Theater:

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Marilyn, Arriving: Collage, Astrology and Poetry

I never met her--but there she stood on the back of one of the bedroom doors in our house, gracing a poster taller than my parents. I remember falling asleep to that black and white image: city street, sturdy legs, skirt billowing up, one hand holding down the pleats but not really. It was either my brother’s poster or a poster we pitched in for my father—I can’t remember—grade school. Maybe 7th grade.

Then she made her way into a collage I was making at a tiny round table in Joyce Renwick’s basement. (Joyce pulled me up by my bootstraps after graduate school and not only rented me her basement apartment, but talked some sense into my poetry loving brain...“Yes, you can write, but you have to earn a living until your writing can earn your let’s figure out where you can teach....”). Dutifully I landed a few summer creative writing workshops to teach and by night, scored essays at one of the testing agencies in Iowa City.

As I made the transition from graduate student to working teacher that winter, I made collages. This particular one featured a stained glass cathedral window, the grey and white photo of a hummingbird, the fanned feathers of its extended wings mirroring the white fan of that same girl’s skirt, same pose. The hummingbird and the girl were separated by a close-up of the petals of a rose, and one of those angels stepping down out of the sky in silken robes on the verge of catching fire. I hung the collage at the foot of my bed where the dark paneled walls had not yet been painted white, and the low popcorn ceiling seemed to undulate even after I closed my eyes.

In secret rebellion of my working life, I’d taken up astrology. I drove beside my “real astrologer” friend Bonnie through the bitterly cold night several towns over to our teacher Andrea. For homework Andrea handed out five charts of public figures. Our job was to guess. Only one of the charts floated into focus, given my rudimentary sense of the energies of the planets. It was so long ago I can’t haul up the specifics of the chart; I only know I recognized something, like when you are swimming in a body of water and you sense, for example, a seal, or a dolphin approaching before you spot them beside you. From this chart, I got a visceral sensation of vulnerability, charisma and danger woven together. I thought it might be her.

Yes, Andrea nodded, you have Marilyn before you.

And ever since then, the reverse birth image never left me, of petals, hummingbirds, and Marilyn trying to breathe.

Further reading:

“Marilyn” is currently up this week, thanks to Salome Magazine, at

I’ve left the astrology to my more talented friends, like Bonnie Orgren (M.S.W. Astrologer, Counselor, Healing Touch, Reiki). To get Bonnie Orgren’s beautifully written and free monthly Stardust Seven Ray Services Reports on planetary happenings, write to her at: or you can go to: and look up Bonnie's latest report.

Joyce Renwick: In Praise of What Persists, a collection of short stories published posthumously by editor Richard Peabody available at:
To read a 1995 interview with Joyce Renwick:

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"She Dressed in a Hurry" for Lady Di and "Marilyn" poems at Salome Magazine (this week, next)

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a safety net of helpers to hold a writer in place long enough to snag a poem. For the last six years, my father has taken my children on Fridays so I can write (for a good number of those years, joined by his wife Robyn). Each Friday, when I hear their car approaching up the drive, my youngest son and I waiting on the front steps under the redwoods, I feel such gratitude for the writer’s life I get to indulge in while raising children.

I wrote “She dressed in a hurry” (for Lady Di; up currently at during a week my father was out of town. I’d realized how vital Fridays were to my sanity and cooked up a childcare trade with my mom friend Maureen. I took my two year old, my writing folder, and a lukewarm cup of tea over to her house. That rainy morning the farthest my son allowed me to go was the bedroom, door ajar, where he could hold a boxcar in his fist and keep en eye trained on me. Maureen gave up on convincing me to escape to one of the cabins on her property, moved aside the stack of papers for her non-profit work on the small desk at the foot of her bed, and cheerily went about making apple sauce with our two sons.

Maureen’s husband—just like mine would have done--drifted into the bedroom once or twice, apologizing profusely, looking for a raincoat, a hat, and yet the poem held on, more or less down on the page by the end of the two hours, born amidst the sounds of living, as so much of a mother’s writing is....laptop in the kitchen, steam from the lentils on the stove wreathing the ceiling, the steady corrugated roll of scooters and tricycles on the deck outside. Thank you Dad and Robyn. Thank you Maureen and Faik for the room that morning, for your love for the children.

I’m thrilled to have found Salome Magazine (I believe the tip-off came via Ethel Rohan—a pithy, engaging writer I met at a women's writing conference last year. Her website:

A quote from Salome Magazine’s site, under the “covenant” link reads (of course worth reading it in its entirety):

Mostly, I wanted to take a look at what has become of The New Woman's evil twin -- the post-feminist woman. Today our familiar friend wakes up at age 35 only to realize that she has put her education and career first and is frantically trying to outrace menopause. She has finally acquired the husband, the house, the golden retriever, and the sports utility vehicle, and she's ready to start a family. But on the domestic side of life, she has some catching up to do. Does she cook, clean, sew, or iron? Of course not. Her life is way too busy for that. She eats take-out six nights a week, tips her cleaning woman, drops her clothes off at the dry cleaner and is running all the time. Is she happy? Has she really fulfilled her dreams? What solutions are there for finding balance in our lives? This is the crux of Salome Magazine.

Salome as a mythological character ties into these goals of reinvention as a revolutionary figure. As women we are still objects of sexual desire. We are participating in this "dance" as a matter of course, but we are also preparing our demands and revisiting our desires. My vision for this website is to create an safe online sanctuary where intelligent women may read weekly submissions, consider them, and provide thoughtful and respectful feedback on the issues and opinions discussed herein. Let us forge a community and come to our own individual and communal understanding about our authentic and rich veritable experiences as modern women.

I hope you’ll consider submitting work to Salome Magazine--or joining the conversation in their “chamber.”

Friday, September 25, 2009

"Lifeguard"... a nonfiction essay of mine live at Empire Report( paired with photographs by Robyn Beattie (like the one pictured here); view her portfolio at

Empire Report, a North Bay community journalism organization, is currently looking for contributors--writers, journalists, photographers, etc., to submit. A quote from the site sums up the grassroots approach (fostering local responsibility/involvement/inspiration/opportunity): "Why not have a website that lets you report the news yourself?"

Friday, September 18, 2009

Perspective: Body Surfing, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tenar and Sleeping Beauty

Remember nursing in a wetsuit? Trying to peel back one shoulder and noodle one arm free to the smell of salty rubber, wasted milk dribbling down your stomach....grabbing a towel, trying not to fling sand into the baby’s eyes...

Haven’t had a nurser for nearly a year now, so I’m back in the wetsuit, ten feet offshore beside my husband on a boogie board, losing, in the briny cold, some of the hypervigilant concern I tend to habitually train on my three children (wether they need it or not). Their drip castles spiral skyward—they’re oblivious to us, the parent animal, riding out the undulations, finally bearing down on them atop a breaking wave...I could get addicted to this...body of water, its gift of lift, wave after wave obliterating the grumpy pall of navigating the day’s transitions. And how odd, to be so separate, yet so close, to my children. They look so tiny, their physical frames no match for the proportion of space they occupy in my heart and mind.

Later, my daughter trades places with my husband, and she and I ride the white froth up the shoreline, laughing. We’ve needed to laugh, something we can do side by side without interruption or another voice calling my attention from her, she with the familiar intense grip of the firstborn. We share the birth placement, but in the tiredness of raising her brothers, I can’t always haul up the focus to give her what she wants in the moment. But I know she’ll find her way to what she needs, as I did.

By night, Ursula K. Le Guin does for my writer’s mind what the ocean did for my body, those billion ions in the air above the wave taking me up and out of my tiny, worried world. I came across Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea Trilogy as a child—I think on the brink of adolescence. I read A Wizard of Earthsea first, pouring my girl self into the spirit of the main character, a young boy finding his way to his source of power (and ultimately, true wizardhood).

But reading the second book, The Tombs of Atuan proved far more powerful. For I remember that delicate cusp when I was in love with fairytales, but unable to ignore the books my mother had on the back of the toilet: My Mother, Myself, and Colette Dowling’s The Cinderella Complex. Disenchanted, I guess, or armed for disenchantment with the “happily ever after” fairytale version of life, but still having no clue how to proceed. You are not supposed to want a prince, ok. You are supposed to be able to do all the things men do, ok. But how?

Le Guin’s Tenar (protagonist of The Tombs of Atuan) is a child taken from her family to be raised as a priestess, a “chosen one”, who will need the help of the wizard to find her true self...Bless Le Guin, for the wizard comes to Arha, not as rescuer, but as a three dimensional human being--a broken helpmate of sorts. He ultimately helps her escape, but not before he’s been her prisoner, and the book ends with her sitting at the prow of a ship, returning to her native land, walking up the street beside him. Though she’s faced down her own inner demons to arrive here, she’ll now have to remake herself in the present. Le Guin leaves her heroine here.

Tenar’s journey laid down alternate paths of possibility, forging tiny deer trails in my adolescent brain when I was lost, trying to follow or run from the stag, depending on the direction of the flow of hormones that day. And here in my 40s, Tenar continues to speak quietly to me of possibility, of the ever-present possibility of starting over, remaking oneself, after examining what you formerly were lead to believe or erroneously lead yourself to believe (about life, love, men, women, children, you name it).

Le Guin charts her own discovery of the power of shifted perspective in her essay: “The Wilderness Within: The Sleeping Beauty and “The Poacher” and a PS about Sylvia Townsend Warner” (from the Le Guin’s wave in the mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination). She speaks of a poem by Warner that changed how she thought about “Sleeping Beauty” forever. Two of Warner’s lines read: “Woe’s me! Must one kiss / Revoke the silent house, the birdsong wilderness?”

And Le Guin writes “I think the story is about that still center: ‘the silent house, the birdsong wilderness’” p. 116. The rest of Le Guin’s essay is a prose poem itself (I think) so I hope you’ll read it in its entirety...she writes, “There she is alone (Sleeping Beauty), all by herself, content and nobody knows her. She is thinking: Don’t wake me. Don’t know me. Let me be...
At the same time she is probably shouting out of the windows of other corners of her being, Here I am, do come, oh do hurry up and come! (p. 111)”

And so I watch my daughter approaching the end of her years of “birdsong stillness” and breathe a little deeper for the fairytales, and the writers forging the next layer of path-work based on those fairytales...and pray they provide the solace she’ll need to proceed safely, on her own, when she’s no longer topping off a drip castle or shooting past me on her boogie board.

Books by Ursula K. Le Guin: The Earthsea Trilogy: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore (the 1977 Tombs of Atuan volume in my home features beautiful chapter-head illustrations by Gail Garrety--I love especially the images for the chapters The Anger of the Dark and Light Under the Hill); the wave in the mind: and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination; City of Illusions; The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of name a few of my favorites.

Friday, September 11, 2009


...we arrive here improvised
and leave without the chance to practice...
(Wislawa Szymborska, from Nothing Twice)

Sleeping long into the morning in the furred oblivion of pregnancy—fifth month, first child.

Waking and shuffling over to the answering machine: 12 messages. The first from my husband, who’d risen to run with his best friend, and three more from him, “Wake up, baby...” Followed by my mother, my aunt across town offering that I come be with them. My best friend. The husband again. My mother-in-law....

Then, years of wondering why I was allowed this life, this turn at driving with my infant children in the car, a selfish gratitude.

Still no answer, as there never is with the senseless taking of lives.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Feral Wife: Two Chainsaws, the Ocean and an Untended Husband

So last year my husband found a weekend job perfect for an adrenaline junky: removing a100 foot tree trunk off a jetty (with instructions not to obstruct the shipping channel in the process). He took off for “work” that morning with his wetsuit, two Husqvarna chainsaws and on his bicep, a brand new black Razor phone (the latest and hottest at the time). The communication, my idea...honey, how about you get some walkie talkies since you’ll be working alone...One thing lead to another at the gadget store, and he walked out a couple hundred dollars later with the Razor (and a sleek strap to cinch it to his arm). He promised to call every four hours.

He drove to the bluff above the jetty and hiked his chainsaws in. Meet me for lunch, he said, right on time with his first phone call. I want the kids to see this...and so I parked at the beach down below—where, a tiny figure eventually appeared—head and shoulders—gradually looming larger: Aqua-man floating a pair of severed tree rounds on the water’s surface along the coastline to the cove we occupied, plodding out carefully with his fins toes to the sky, hefting each 40 pound wood frisbee against his chest and onto the sand.

My mother-in-law showed up with her camera. The kids crowed appropriately as their father advanced out of the waves, but lost interest when they realized he wouldn’t be stopping long enough to surf with them. They amused themselves with the tide pools, but the next day, we opted to stay home.

And that’s the day my husband ran into trouble. At the tip of the tree trunk he found the rounds manageable, but as he progressed towards the base and roots, they grew in diameter. So he decided to cut the remaining trunk in half, not anticipating the resultant pinch the weight of the two halves would put on the blade, lodging it firmly. He took the second chainsaw to cut the other out. It too ground to a halt deep in the tree. With the tide rising and dusk on its way, he didn’t stop long enough to consider calling. He still had the quarter mile hike up the bluffs to get to his truck.

He muscled the first chainsaw out. Then he began to see-saw the second chainsaw vigorously back and forth. On his third yank, the blade freed itself suddenly and the top half of my husband’s body shot up into the air. He had a split second to regain his footing, but he stepped onto a rock covered in wet kelp. He and the chainsaw went over backwards into the ocean.

And so did the Razor.

As always, he emerged from the escapade unscathed (and, he wanted me to add, with the mission accomplished). The guys at the Husqvarna shop helped him take apart and de-salt his chainsaw, shaking their heads. And the employee my husband bought the phone from the day before at Best Buy felt so sorry for him he went out to the parking lot, fished around under the front seat and handed over his ex-girlfriend’s old Nokia (apologizing for the flower stickers). My husband walked in to our kitchen at 8 o’clock that night lamenting the death of his Razor, but stopped short when he saw the look on my face...

Friday, August 28, 2009

Cicadas, Workshop Blues, and Early Mentors

After all the kids are out and the only sound competing with their snoring comes via the open window, solace overtakes me: rings of thrumming, the hundred tree limbs in the dark lined with the night choir.

An offhand response to the question, “What do you not want in a submission?” made by Tin House editorial staff: “...For such a small insect, cicadas sure show up a lot in poetry and fiction. It sounds silly take issue with it, but the point is that it smacks of device, which in turn interrupts the dream... (Bullseye, Poets and Writers, Sept/Oct 09)” has me, of course, also musing in the dark... well, why? Why would so many writer’s minds gravitate to the image of a cicada? Tell me what you think...I have my own ethereal impressions—what a soothing antidote the sound provides for instance, to the high speed buzz of the internet (which I love as much as the next writer).

I (of course) have a cicada poem—well, two, but they came fifteen years apart. And don’t come near nailing cicada essence like Adrien Stoutenburg does in Cicada: he sang like a driven nail / and his skinless eyes looked out / wanting himself as he was. And later in stanza three: Some jewel work straining in his thigh / broke like a kindgom./ I let him go... (poem--originally published in The New Yorker in 1957--appears in its entirety a bit down the page here:

But I do have cicadas to thank for drop-kicking me into the gut of workshop blues when the opening lines to The Chanter’s Daughter were challenged for mixing metaphors...The poem opens, When she sings / she unearths the air-dance cicadas know; wings sear the dark with colors for your ears ... and the larger criticism had to do with the historical irresponsibility of referring to the holocaust, which I had not lived through myself. As a first year grad student, starry eyed from a year of studying astrology and tarot, busy believing writing emerges from some mythic place you cannot frame or limit, I took the comments personally, not yet having developed that protective husk you need to survive any creative writing program with your soul intact.

When the poem was published later that year in Kalliope (Vol. XVI. No. 2, 1994), already underway with the peculiar disassociation from joy that came to characterize my relationship with my writing then, I remember feeling like a mistake had been made—I’d pulled the wool over these editors’ eyes, they hadn’t seen as clearly as my instructor.

When, months later I actually sat down and read the magazine from cover to cover, I found I was in the company of poets I admired; in particular, Maureen Hurley—who came to Monte Rio School with a visiting poet program when I was in seventh grade. We’d recently left an Illinois commune and landed in the crazy midst of Starret Hill families (trying to survive the drug culture and poverty of the green, dripping winters under the redwoods), my parents on the verge of divorce. And Hurley walked in--a quiet unassuming woman who spoke to us about words and their resonance, taking down our associations and connecting them until the entire board was covered in a web and I lost some of the fear of my new classmates.

Back in the heartland as a graduate student, just the sight of Hurley’s name (as well as a phone call to my undergraduate writing teacher) rescued me from the feeling of alienation threatening to take over. As self-absorbed as I was, I did recognize the closing of a circle with gratitude.

That confrontation—experience of being shaken as a young writer—has its place—I see now. I do still believe writing comes from a mythic place you cannot limit or frame, but I’m grateful for having been challenged by the convictions of established, charismatic, intelligent writers. And, the saying goes, that which doesn’t kill you serves to make you stronger. Here’s to the magnificent cicada...And to the editors at Tin House, I'll consider waiting another fifteen years before I write about cicadas again...unless, of course, I master the art of using the image to propel my reader more deeply into the fictional dream.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Car tantrums, Non-Parental Observers, and the Cops

I was at a bridal shower when it happened. Mainly thrilled after eight years of either being pregnant or nursing to be headed for “something just for me” in sandals that matched my blouse and underneath that blouse a bra without those lumps at the top of the cups (from those hook snaps for a nurser's easy access). Even had a fresh layer of nailpolish over the months old toe-job to hide the chips.

My cell phone rang twice, the girls making fun of me for even thinking of answering it during the two hours away from my husband. “He can handle it,” they laughed and prodded me to set my phone down on a thumping speaker and then handed me a fresh mimosa. I ate the decorative m & ms on the table nervously as I listened to the other women, speaking of their jobs, their children launched, all the while I’m trying not to appear desperate for conversation, wondering if I too should be taking up triathlon when my youngest starts kindergarten except for that terror I have of swimming in open water while others mow over me, and the fact that my ovaries sting so much I puke when I run more than a quarter mile. So ok, I could maybe do a relay and ride the bike. If I can remember how to get my bike shoes out of those snazzy snap-on lollipop pedals without falling over and breaking a hip.

When I finally left the bridal shower tanked up on couscous with pomegranate seeds and tiny wedges of fig and called my husband, he sounded as panicked as I do every day at 5:02 when I call him to ask him why he’s not home yet, the kids in the background shrieking.

“You won’t believe it, T,” he said. “Some lady called the cops on me.”

“Didn’t you guys ride bikes?” I asked.

Yes, and no. Getting back into the truck after the bike ride, the middle son decided he wanted to sit next to his Dad in the front seat. My husband stood firm, no, and after five minutes of trying to explain why, and my son screaming irrationally, my husband did a fairly sane thing: he left the screamer in the truck and took the 3-year old and 8-year old and sat in the field next to the truck, about 20 feet away to wait it out. He could see my son and my son could see his father. Drawn by the sound of our crying child, a woman sallied over to the truck with her cell phone in hand and said, “Is that child crying?!” My husband said, “Yes, he’s having a tantrum.” She then walked over to the license plate and started punching in numbers. “You’re not calling the cops, are you?” my exasperated husband asked. She ignored him. “Do you have children?” he said, to her retreating back. She continued walking away.

So my husband waited—and sure enough, the cop car drove up ten minutes later. (Why drive off and get pulled over somewhere downtown? he told me). The lady cop asked to speak to our son who by then was no longer crying and asked him if he was ok, and then said, “Hey, do you know why your Dad wants you in the back seat? It’s the safest place for you to ride.” She gave all three kids junior cop stickers and went on her way.

What the cell-phone wielding non-parental observer didn’t realize or couldn’t possibly know was the kids were hot and thirsty. That if you put a three-year old, an eight-year old and a forty-two-year old father in a king cab with a screaming six-year old, things get real hairy real fast.

Two days later, I got my turn with passing judgment. I pulled up in a parking lot on my way to the bookstore, high noon, probably 92 degrees out. The windows of the car next to me were cracked a couple of inches and a large black dog crawled up to the passenger seat, with, I exaggerate not, at least a six incher of drool hanging off his tongue and some froth around his nose. I actually flashed on the woman who called the police on my husband and thought, I can’t jump to conclusions here. But as I locked up my car and started to walk away, I thought, shoot, I have a cup of water in the car, maybe I should just give it to the dog. I did a U-turn, but before I could open the door to my car, a woman walked over to me.

“Yes,” she said defensively before I could say anything, “that’s my dog and he’s only been alone in that car for three minutes. He’s fine.”

“Ok,” I said, “sure, I know things aren’t always what they seem...” and I tried to relay the story of my husband and our son, but I trailed off when I realized she was still standing there defensively. Sure, I thought, maybe that dog always drools like that. Who knows? You just can’t possibly know what transpired even two minutes before you come on any scene or know for sure the source of froth on a dog’s nose.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Feral Dreamer, or No Going Back

In April, I had one of those dreams without a single image, just a voice over: “You can either Be Here, or Be Here More Deeply...”

which reminded me of a dream I had during the post-grad days in Iowa City at the height of existential despair (working at the testing agency by day, teaching Interpretations of Literature by night, taking shifts at the Crystal Gem store on weekends, falling short of earning enough to cover student loans and living expenses--in the gap between failed relationships, wondering how to recoup sanity, find husband, children, etc). In which I asked, “WHY?” (as in what was the point of being here). I became aware of standing in a room with two other seekers, a massive cone-shaped sculpture of thin metal triangles and circles floating in front of us that we were composing and levitating playfully. The voice answered back, “Because You Were Bored.....”

As in remember?! You chose this life and its challenges, now stop the middle-class whining and get on with your life!

So I’m outing the the optomistic leg of this blog: Feral Dreamer—the “hidden balancer.” (Feral Mom—the “situation”. Feral Writer—the “opposing passion.”) I need all three to care enough to be here. Specifically on the subject of motherhood—I came across this enlightening passage this week:

The language in which we think about the relationship between motherhood and art making is inadequate. Unfortunately we enter into motherhood feeling like it is an oppositional struggle rather than focusing on the effort living fully takes. This is what C. D. Wright reminds us (Claudia Rankine, in an interview in jubilat (issue twelve, 2006) speaking about C.D. Wright’s book, Cooling Time, in which Wright discusses poetry and pregnancy: You get what you get—or, you lose some and you gain some, but there is no going back (Rankine again on Wright).

And another provoking bit of reflection came via Poetry (September 2009) “As If Nature Talked Back to Me: A Notebook” by Ange Mlinko: “I don’t want to read anthologies of mother poems. On the other hand I am always interested in what individual poets write about their children, in context with all the other things they write about” (p. 461). You have to read Mlinko’s rich essay in its entirety—and I admit I do see what she’s getting at regarding the limiting aspect of marketing oneself and one’s work to the “mothering genre” (less wholesome than having the entirety of one’s poetic work taken seriously, motherhood one aspect of many). But the line of Mlinko’s I underlined and will keep for now: “Women with young children still have a lifetime ahead of them.”

Taking to heart C.D. Wright’s observation regarding the depth of the “effort living fully takes,” I love seeing motherhood and writing as pushing one another to richer potential rather than seeing them as opposing trajectories.

Occasionally I wonder which plane of existence I occupied in that dream when I decided I was bored (asking the “why,” I suppose, out of the addictive context of dreams of flying, knitting bones, skimming other planets, breathing underwater and visiting the mythic mirror for whichever incarnation would show itself next)—but not for too long. While raising children, such disassociative adventures have lost their charm—I must be here on this planet (and more deeply here) since this is the one I continue to wake on morning after morning, the sweaty back of my three-year old against mine, the feral cats stacked on the deck trellises two stories high waiting to be fed.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Interruptions: Summer, Sex, and the Subconscious

I’m in some church parking lot off Highway 12, yanking away the plastic water bottle my son has been crinkling in his sister’s ear for the last 3 miles, telling them popsicles are off if we can’t make it the rest of the way to the store without fighting. The even, sweet mother I planned to be this morning when I stepped out on my deck under the redwoods for that one moment alone with the turkey vultures and the sun vanishes under the complications of...summer. And now, August, signalling summer’s end, with it’s turn towards the dreaded need to be somewhere by a certain time with shoes on...

To be fair to my children, it is 104 degrees and they’re all three crammed shoulder to shoulder in the middle van seat. We took out the back seat to bypass the fighting over who would sit where, only now they perch smack up against my ear with their altercations, feet and elbows ready weapons and effective. Definitely not worth the extra room to change out of wetsuits.

To be fair to me, I was up until 11:35 p.m., without the heart to boot my children into their own beds. Under the ever-present guilt of not paying enough attention to each of them individually, I’ve allowed bedtime to get out of control. My daughter stakes out ¾ of the bed with her stuffed animals; my youngest son has the other ¼. At 9:42, when I’m finally dozing off, there’s a complaint about sand in the sheets. At 9:50, a mosquitoe. At 9:57, a request for cream for an itchy toe. At 10:10, the mosquitoe returns. At 10:20, a call for a cup of tea with just Momma, please, because the boys are finally asleep, each request jarring me awake from that delicious slide into sleep. Where’s the tantric payoff for sleep interruptions, as there is for persistently interrupted sex? I have yet to have such a punctured night lead to a blissful high of sound sleep worth the ten wakings.

While the metaphor doesn’t hold for sleep, it holds for the writing of a poem, or the making of a sculpture. It has to. Or so I’m trying to convince my sculptor-mom friend on a stolen night out together. The boy Barrista at the coffee shop thinks we are hilarious...giddy with being out sans children, I’m telling him, “A vanilla latte, and make it decaff or I’ll be a bad mom tomorrow...” He thinks I’m joking. “I’m not kidding,” I reiterate, and he tells us to sit on the stools by the window so we’ll be within earshot. We acquiesce, and discuss: the strain of persevering with one’s work against the constant interruptions and demands of motherhood. Do you just not go as deep or as far in your work? Or when you do finally get the moment to drop within, grope around in the fertile subconscious and resurface with something in hand, is the work that much richer for all you’ve gone through as a parent, struggling, an uncomfortable god of the emotional tenor of your children’s lives? Or is it simply true, we joke, we too need wives so we can focus on our careers as artists?

Older friends, with adult children, remind me to covet this time with my children, for it will hurtle past, and whatever it is I so rigidly think I have to get done will get done just as well when they are grown. So I try to relish it all, sleepily listening to my daughter’s 10:49 p.m. skinny on her day, aware that I’ll be lucky if she’ll let me be in the same room with her when she is a teenager, as so poignantly expressed in Ellen Bass’s poem, “Dyeing Her Hair” : My daughter sits in the yard in my old nightgown/while I work the chemicals down to the roots, grateful to have an excuse to touch her./ In the last sun of the afternoon, her hair drinks in/the deep paprika hue. She’s safe.....” and several lines later,

She leaves tomorrow, returning/to a life so dangerous I have to exile my heart. (Missouri Review, Summer 2009)...a beautiful reminder aches of a more complicated kind await me as my children grow.

Further reading:

Poetry collection titles for Ellen Bass: The Human Line and Mules of Love. Nonfiction titles include The Courage to Heal and Free Your Mind. Her website address:

Friday, July 31, 2009

Losing Papu: Allan Oliver Nelson (November 21, 1916-July 16, 2009)

I packed the chili, cornbread, and warm chocolate chip cookies my son had baked for great grandpa into the car. I loaded the three kids and we drove, scanning the roadside for my husband, who in his own manner of coping with our pending loss, was running from our home to the river house—all of us in our separate ways trying to help. Great grandpa (Papu)—home finally from an Easter fall and months of living at rehab--had stopped eating for several days.

He’s at his desk when we arrive, sorting through files. He tells me he’s come across some poems his mother had once recited to the accompaniment of a musician; he wants to send them to an archive in the Midwest.

“No thanks,” he says, to the offer of a cookie, “maybe later,” but gives a faint smile (winner of the 1938 Dipsea race, dubbed the “running diplomat” by the Finnish) when he hears Marko opted to run the twelve miles here.

Several days prior, our middle son said to me at bedtime, “I don’t want Papu to die until he’s 98. Daddy says he might die this week. I don’t want him to.”

“Well, when you see Papu at the river, be sure to tell him you love him. He can take your love with him in his heart.”

“No, I won’t tell him. He already knows that in his heart,” said my son. “But I don’t want him to die, Mom.”

“Maybe he’ll visit you in a dream.”

“He could come in my dream when he was 20,” my son said. “That way I would get to see him run.”

Ubeknownst to us, this Thursday is Papu’s last day on Earth. After spending the afternoon at the house, usually so careful about all saying goodbye, we find ourselves late for our daughter’s Aikido class. The youngest (without a stitch) is circling the property, Mark’s putting away the ladder he used when sanding down the house the last three hours. I’m upstairs with Papu, trying to decide which “Christmas” we should cut from a couple sentences in the manuscript Papu's finished (based on his mother’s diaries).

“See you soon,” I say, kissing him on the forehead. He nods, still bent over the pages spread out before him. Relieved two out of three of the kids are in the van, I neglect to send them back up to kiss Papu goodbye, barely managing to grab the littlest by his sand-crusted gut and plunk him into his car-seat.

I thought I’d be telling you how we talked our children through losing their great grandpa. But death made kids of my husband and I too (lost—could we have done more? a lot sad—we’ll never hear him say to our three year old, “Hey Nik-O, how you doing?” or see him swivel towards us from his grey chair by the desk). Nothing else to do--gripped so firmly by grief late at night--but wonder together about it all.

And survive the myriad things we bump into in a day that remind us of him (the wheel chair waiting to be returned at the top of the stairs, pink post-it notes with editing questions for him on my laptop, a Korbel champagne wire he twisted into a chair for the kids). My husband and I say the right things to strangers and friends, “No need for condolences. He was 92—long, happy life.” And walk away missing him, somewhat reassured by my son’s confidence that even though we didn’t say goodbye, Papu carries our love for him in his heart as we carry his in ours.

Further reading: The Nelson Brothers: Finnish-American Radicals from the Mendocino Coast by Allan Nelson, published by the Mendocino County Historical Society and Mendocino County Museum in association with the Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota (this book is based on letters between Allan’s father and Uncle Enoch who had moved to Russia).

The family is also in the process of preparing the completed manuscript, "Helmi’s Story”, (the tale of Papu’s mother’s life, based on her diary entries) for publication.

Bring Me the Rhinoceros And Other Zen Koans to Bring You Joy, by Santa Rosa author John Tarrant (see the chapter “Life With and Without Your Cherished Beliefs”, especially pp. 116-122 in which the author describes “affection's twisting paths” and how to more gracefully accept the mucky process of witnessing, with other family members, a loved one crossing over.)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Cross-Pollination: Claudel, DeCamp, and Beattie

When I was seventeen, a postcard came in the mail (must have been early fall) of El Beso, by Rodin. I fell in love with the sound of the sculptor’s name. I wouldn’t end up in Paris for another 17 years, but when at last I stood in the glass-latticed house and looked at those white marble pairs of lovers held in the palm of the god who made them, I remembered my first encounter with El Beso.

Haunted by having seen the movie Camille Claudel (a version of Claudel’s struggle to master her own sculpture in the company of Rodin: his part in the tapestry of her successes, losses, her later failing mental health), I sought out her work in Rodin’s museum. In the room dedicated to her, I delighted in The Wave, a small study of three bathers frolicking in the water: sturdy-thighed women capable of a good snort when they laugh (1897, marble, onyx and bronze). Keenly aware of the energy emanating from our culture’s anorexic images (magazine covers, billboards, movies, etc), I found solace in those three strong life-like women.

Another image that lived in my home for several years quietly speaking to my subconscious was a painting titled The Rescue of Ophelia (by Christine DeCamp. A massive leaf borders the body of the floating Ophelia as she cradles in her arms an owl, Shakespeare’s last word trumped by DeCamp’s alternate reality. One day, at my desk, I found Ophelia—no longer mere victim, but a complicated woman with more than one possible past and future--had a thing or two to say. I fired the poem off to DeCamp who hung it on the wall with the original painting at one of her openings.

I live for such cross-pollinations. And for the inspiration which hidden worlds provide. Which leads me to the talented Beattie women, and the story of other images soaking into the ethers of my home. One is a photograph by Robyn Beattie of the swirling, scalloped ruffles of escargot begonias. Another is a photograph of a mermaid sculpture by Ananda Beattie (July 9, 1958-June 2, 2008). Ananda’s sea-girl gives me a dual sense of strength and vulnerability—thick ruts of clay hair stream down the mermaid’s back, her tail spooled thickly inward, chin thrust skyward, a maze of sea-salt across her chest. Sister Robyn took the photograph. Missing Ananda, we share a love of the image. And we play onward...from sculptor to photographer to poet...I’m back at my desk, urged there by other presences to record things left unsaid, with a new series underway, thanks to the manifest visions of Claudel, DeCamp and most recently, the Beattie sisters.

*******************************************************Robyn Beattie’s photography (Hidden worlds—A closer look at tiny treasures) will be featured in the show: “surface, detail LINE and rhythm” at the Graton Gallery 9048 Graton Road, Graton CA.

July 7-August 16, 2009
To view more of Robyn's photograpy:
To view The Wave as well as background information about Claudel’s other “sketches from nature” characterized on this Detroit Institute of Art web-site as “poems of intimacy”:

Christine DeCamp’s paintings can be found at .