We, the once geeky and near-friendless high school students, who observed but never took part in cool happenings, who skirted the outermost margins of the outermost social groups, who always wore the wrong clothes and said the wrong thing – we grew into regular people. And some of us became writers who could avenge the slights and humiliations of those adolescent years by writing about them.

And so, I have written Angie Rubio Stories, a collection of stories about a girl who encounters barriers to belonging. The stories span the years from kindergarten through high school and document Angie’s history of awkward moments, hard-earned lessons, a vague but deep-seated desire to be someone, and a belief that she will one day matter.
Two of the stories have been published in journals, the Adirondack Review and Santa Ana River Review. Another was recorded by KUOW during Lit Crawl 2014, and I read a fourth at Humanities Washington Bedtime Stories last October. The stories have had a welcome reception, because who doesn’t like an underdog? Well, so far, the agents I’ve queried, to name a dozen. But whatever. It’s consistent with Angie Rubio’s storyline of rejection.

While Angie Rubio is a fictional character, many of her missteps and misadventures are based on memories of my own mortifications, so it’s hard not to take rejection extra-personally. But, what if I’ve taken everything extra-personally, so much so that I’ve inflated minor embarrassments into major infamies. What if Angie Rubio is truly fiction and not semi-autobiographical in the least?

What if I had misread others’ perceptions of me and allowed my own negative self-perceptions to amplify themselves into soap-opera tragedy? What if the worst that happened was that no one noticed me, and no one knew my name? If only.

I felt invisible for much of my school years, but during my senior year I suddenly became interesting to a small group of boys. When I walked past them in the hallway, they would snicker and make rude remarks. I was confused at the meanness directed at me. I was weird but not unkind. I ignored them, but I was hurt that anyone would be unkind to me. What had I done to earn such treatment? It turned out my sin had been being skinny and awkward. According to my younger sister whose boyfriend was friends with the group of harassers, one of the boys had confessed to liking me, but the laughter of his buddies at this revelation induced him to join them in ridiculing me. It was all so high school. Or better, hell school.

Recently, while spending a week in National City where I grew up, I connected with a friend from high school who arranged for a mini-reunion with some former classmates. I’d been expecting to see just two or three, but there were nine people at the table at the barbecue restaurant that had been there at the shopping mall since we were kids. IMG_0069This turnout was both lovely and surprising since my own circle of friends during high school was so small that geometrically we were more a triangle or at times a square rather than a circle. I knew all the people at the table by name but had not had a social relationship with them in high school. It’s quite possible that at least a few of them had no clue who I was then or in high school. Apart from the incident mentioned above, I spent my three years of high school miles under the radar, my face unrecognizable to many, my voice unheard.

But there was an easy camaraderie at the Barbecue Pit table, the bond of a common high school, if not a common experience uniting us. And there was our lost youth as a social equalizer.

I admit I hang on to a bit of that scorn that was directed at me by those boys in high school. I keep as well the scorn that burned in me for those boys. But it’s become a healthy little lump of bitter wrapped in reflection and self-regard.

I don’t forget for Angie Rubio’s sake. It was for her that I wrote Angie Rubio Stories, not in retaliation or revenge, but in homage to a skinny, weird, awkward girl trying to find her place or places in the world – like the Barbecue Pit.BBQ PIt

Writers write because they have an affinity, even a compulsion, for words. We love and are driven to make sentences that grow into stories that touch the reader in some way. It’s how we communicate. And even though making sentences might require much hair-pulling and brow-furrowing, we trust that the words, sentences, and clarity of intent will eventually come to us – like old friends or a loyal puppy.

But what happens when you try to learn another language? When you try to communicate in it? When you know the words on paper and understand them when you hear them out loud, but they vanish somewhere between your head and your tongue when you try to speak them? When you feel completely useless trying to summon them from the far reaches of your brain where they have burrowed themselves like gusanos in the maguey or where they have drifted in a stew of conjugations, past with present, future with conditional, the subjunctive deliberately hiding itself among the others – not a single friend or loyal puppy in the mix.

I’d heard Spanish frequently while growing up. My grandmother who immigrated from NanaMexico in 1924 never learned English. My mother and her siblings could speak Spanish to varying degrees, but I grew up feeling that it wasn’t my language to know, or worse, that I wasn’t capable of knowing it. It meant I would never really know my grandmother.

Over the years, I’ve made multiple attempts at learning Spanish, but the gap between brain and tongue always yawned big and wide. Maybe a couple of weeks of immersion would trigger latent synapses in my cerebral cortex. I’d been listening to Spanish language podcasts for months before my trip to Oaxaca and the Spanish Immersion Program there. Surely, once I arrived in Mexico, magic would happen and the soup inside my head would bubble itself into something coherent and fluent, and the language of my grandmother would finally be mine too.

Instead, I became a Victor Hugo Pérez painting. Before my first class, I went to the Museo de Pintores Oaxaqueños. Two paintings by Pérez seemed to foretell how I would perform on that first day of classes. I felt like everything I’d ever known about Spanish had suddenly (switching metaphors here) melted like a box of crayons in the sun.

My five hours a day of instruction were split into two-and-half-hour blocks, with theoretically the first class devoted to grammar and the second to conversation. In fact, both sections were built heavily around conversation. My teachers knew English, some a lot, others just a little, but we only spoke Spanish. Mine was halting and full of errors. I ended up working with four teachers during my two weeks of classes, which exposed me to different manners of speaking, styles of teaching, and personal interests. From Miriam, I learned a little about the Zapotec people and language. Reina was a terrific source of information about the history and culture of Oaxaca. Ruben and I had a fun discussion about names, and the one afternoon the delightful Valeria was my teacher, she made a game of the subjunctive. All were smart and highly competent teachers and were fun to be around.

There were definitely times that I felt that the immersion thing was working. So, if you’re looking for a recommendation, I give mine wholeheartedly and if I were to give it in Spanish, I would use the subjunctive form as in Les recomiendo que inscriban en Spanish Immersion Program. Or I would command you to do so with the imperative form as in ¡Inscribanse!

Sometimes my ploy was to ask my teachers questions about themselves or about Oaxaca, or even just about a point of grammar so I could just listen and not think so much about constructing sentences of my own. Other times, especially during the second week, there was a genuine give-and-take of conversation.

I was doing other things to ensure my immersion. After my first week of classes I participated in the Intercambio at the Oaxaca Lending Library where I spent an hour in fairly effortless Spanish conversation with a young Oaxacan. When I took tours, I opted for Marthathe Spanish-language guides. When I met up with the artist Fulgencio Lazo, who resides in both Seattle and Oaxaca, we spoke Spanish over an evening meal. And vivacious Martha, my homestay host, was always ready to engage in conversation and gently correct errors.

But then classes ended. Suddenly without the daily lessons and practice, not to mention my teachers who had reduced their normal rate of speech to facilitate my comprehension, I felt once again as if the language was escaping me, that what I had learned and practiced over the last two weeks had assumed its favorite resting state of deliquescence.

The Sunday after classes ended, I went to Fulgencio’s house for desayuno. His brothers, sisters-in-law, and some friends were there. It was a lovely and lively group of people. It was also the first time I’d really sat at a table amidst multiple Spanish speakers with different styles and rates of delivery. While I could follow the conversation, there was absolutely no way I could contribute anything to it. I was so focused on listening to and decoding their words, I had no capacity to produce any of my own. After that morning, I felt again as if becoming fluent in Spanish was out of the grasp of my aging brain and increasingly less agile tongue.

Later that day when I was hot, tired, and hungry, I went for some abarrotes at the tienda  a few blocks from where I was staying. I was jolted when I passed an old woman whose face and demeanor reminded me of my grandmother, a woman who’d never had a deep or reflective conversation with her grandchildren because they couldn’t speak Spanish. I turned around to watch the woman make her way up the hill as if I were really watching my own grandmother move slowly away from me. It’s far too late for me to learn Spanish to speak to her, but I don’t want it to be too late for me to honor her by learning her language. So, I’ll keep trying. Voy a continuar. Sí, voy a hacerlo.

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A week after my official retirement date of January 1, I emailed my former colleagues at work. I had been scrupulous about tying up loose ends on my projects before departing in late December, but there was one thing I thought had yet to be resolved for a particular project.

My email sparked a string of responses from various members of the team, not to mention a bit of confusion. What finally emerged was that the issue had been handled. I felt a little silly. Of course, it had been handled. They’re professionals. I’m not indispensable. They didn’t need me to remind them of this last detail.

I had inserted myself into something that I was no longer a part of. I was retired. I had to let it – the Equity and Social Justice Literary Project – go.

I had been fine with letting go of my other projects, rightly reasoning that the person to assume them would have his own perspective and leave his own imprint on them. And even though the ESJ Literary Project was also in good hands, separating myself from it was harder than I realized. I had been so deeply involved and committed to it, not just for the rewards of the project outcomes, but also for the struggle in making them happen.

debraI was in on the project from the beginning, thanks to my former colleague Debra Ross, whose Buddhist beliefs sustain her activism inside the bureaucracy of local government. We began as a team of four, designing a project that used poetry as a basis for examining issues of race and racism. We invited poets of color from the community to share their work and participate in facilitated discussions on the role of art in addressing racism.

At the end of a successful first year, our team expanded with new members eager to participate in an innovative project that challenged our white coworkers to think more deeply about racism, its roots in our culture and institutions, and its effects on people of color.

Of course, whenever the words racism, white privilege, and white supremacy are used, they vex delicate ears, unsettle tummies, twist the frontal lobe in knots. They make people uncomfortable. Which is what they should do.

One of our projects was canceled over objections to the content of a performance by a well-known local poet. Incensed, I banged out several memos ablaze with protest and rather dramatically, though sincerely, announced my intention to leave the project. I didn’t leave. I couldn’t leave. The project meant too much to me.

img_20181009_155227_1The team regrouped and embarked on a project modeled after The Vulnerability Collective created by a UW student. We adapted the idea for our workplace, called it the Untold Story Project, and invited King County employees to submit a story of racism they’d experienced. Over two dozen employees, including me, offered up a story.

We planned three performances at which the stories would be read by local theater jekeva and natashaartists. The performances were followed by facilitated discussions of the works, the issues they raised, and the feelings they elicited. I knew I wanted Natasha Marin to facilitate the Untold Story Project discussions, having seen her in glorious action at “Storytelling Strategies for Dismantling Racism” workshop. She was masterful, and Jekeva Phillips, whom we hired as performance director, brought her formidable skills to the project, which was undeniably a success.

That success didn’t come without scuffle and tussle. On several occasions our decisions, planned actions, or already produced materials were scrutinized, delayed, or rejected by someone in the hierarchy of bosses, which caused a certain someone much eye-rolling, forehead-slapping, teeth-gritting, and fist-banging.

Maybe that’s what I’ll miss? The fight that is necessary for the triumphs.

This project goes on without me. I know it’s in good hands. There are new people on the team, which means new ideas and new directions. And Debra’s still there, taking a supporting role to the younger members, but still giving guidance with typical calm, meditative grace – the counterpoint to my fist-banging.

So, I’m letting go.

When I was in my forties and even my fifties, retirement seemed forever away. Then suddenly I was sixty-five, eligible for Medicare, and attending retirement seminars at work. After filling out and submitting numerous forms over the course of months, I was down to my last week of work after three decades at the same agency, explaining my projects to the 30-year-old who’s taking my place.IMG_20181211_160650

My career as a project manager was unplanned and arrived at circuitously. I had no idea what I wanted to do job-wise and no sense or reasonable assessment of the skills I possessed. I had an undergraduate degree in zoology and a master’s degree in education. I’d also studied graphic arts for a couple of years and Spanish literature for a year and a half. I was at a loss as to what I was suited for, what I could devote myself to, what I could make a living at. So after thumbing through the UW graduate catalog, I considered the School of Public Affairs as a potential path to – something.

Indeed, that something became an internship at the King County Solid Waste Division in 1987, leading to a permanent position the following year. The rest, as they say, is history – or at least the majority of my resume.

Several years after I began my job, I finally discovered what I’d wanted to do all along – write fiction. It was something I couldn’t possibly make a living doing. Luckily, I was employed full-time at a job I liked and that was contributing to the betterment of our community and the environment. My life was a balancing act with job, family, and writing, often stressful, but the kind of stressful you accept as part of being lucky to have all three.

Now some thirty years later, I have undergone a year full of change.

Last spring my husband and I sold our ramshackle house after years of talking about remodeling or rebuilding it. I wrote a little essay about this house we raised our two daughters in and read it (18:24 mark) at Ampersand Live this past October. IMG_20181225_122232

We’re in an apartment now until we can decide next steps. I’m kind of in love with our apartment life. It feels snug and tucked away. Plus, it’s stripped down in terms of what we can own in our 724-square-foot existence.

In the summer, I turned 65. That, along with signing up for Medicare, seemed the threshold to being officially old – when time accelerates to that dimension where one day you’re 65 and the next day you’re 80.

This winter, my day-job came to a close. People wished me well, gave me cards with lovely sentiments, told me what I had meant to them. They made me realize that my work and my presence have had an impact.

Meanwhile, our daughters are off finding their place in the world.

All that’s left to do is write.

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“We are essayists. We can make a difference,” Stephanie Elizondo Griest said in her electrifying keynote talk that capped the three-day NonfictioNOW Conference in Phoenix recently. I’m a fiction writer. But I went – an interloper, a mole – to glean what I could about writing essays. Not to forsake fiction. I’ll always wants to imagine people into existence, throw wrenches into their lives, yank the net out from under them.

But sometimes I find myself wanting to write about real people and real wrenches and IMG_20181031_172816_279real yanked-away nets. Which is why last summer I took a flash non-fiction workshop from the splendid Suzanne Paola, and why when the ad for this conference. featuring the likes of Francisco Cantú, Gretel Ehrlich, and Stephanie Elizondo Griest, popped up on my Facebook feed, I didn’t hesitate to register. Anyway, leaving Seattle for Phoenix in early November seemed like a pretty good proposition.

NonfictioNOW turned out to be a very fine conference. First, it’s extremely navigable in terms of size. Each session consisted of six topics – a manageable menu from which to choose. The four hundred participants could easily scatter among the various panels, and somehow there seemed to be a more or less even distribution of bodies, as if some law of conference physics was in play.

Second, the chances of meeting a writer you admire are rather high. On the first morningIMG_20181101_095511_2 of the conference, I found myself on the opposite side of a little two-person table from Reyna Grande. I ran into the very smart Paisley Rekdal in the hotel gym and a day later at the hotel bar. While waiting for a panel to begin, the man next to me offered his hand and said, “I’m Dinty.” Of course, I already knew he was Dinty Moore.

Third, nearly every panel I attended was well-organized, with engaging content and speakers who delivered both interesting prepared remarks and thoughtful responses to audience questions. The panels were a way for me to find authors whose books I want to read. Here are some of them:

Sarah Viren moderated the kick-off session called On Collections. Before she invited the multi-genre panelists to describe their prose or poetry collection, she offered a metaphor for the collection – the dinner party her grandmother used to organize where she sat her guests male/female/male/female, never seating couples or spouses side by side because she wanted the unexpected to happen. Viren’s introduction, an essay itself, was charming and graceful. Her collection is called Mine and explores the theme of (what else) ownership. It won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize.

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Photo by Ira Sukrungruang

Angela Morales was one of the On Collections panelists. She also was a last-minute replacement for another panelist for Our True Voice(s), at which she read an excerpt from her collection The Girls in My Town, Winner of the 2017 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. The story about her fifth-grade self and her best friend who, at a time when support for ERA ratification was waning, waged their own campaign for equal rights at their school won my old feminist heart.

Jen Palmares Meadows, also on the On Collections panel, is working on a book, which I eagerly await. Here’s her killer essay “We Be Bleeding,” from which she read an excerpt.

Michele Morano wowed me with an essay on the Hauntings in Nonfiction panel. It was a lovely piece about how we are haunted by time, a beautifully constructed argument for storytelling as the closest thing we have to time travel. Her book Grammar Lessons “connects the rules of grammar to the stories we tell to help us understand our worlds.”

Harrison Candelaria Fletcher moderated the Homing In panel and introduced it by acknowledging, “New Mexico haunts me,” in a voice that truly conveyed his hauntedness and made me think of how my own hometown haunts my fiction. He referenced James Baldwin’s characterization of home as “an irrevocable condition,” and asserted that “if home is an affliction, never fixed, never finished, then it is the reaching toward home, toward a connection, that is the cure.” He’s the author of two award-winning memoirs, Presentimiento: A Life In Dreams and Descanso For My Father: Fragments Of A Life.

Barrie Jean Borich, one of the Homing In panelists, read an excerpt from her book Apocalypse, Darling. The writing was vibrant, seemed to actually pulse. People and place fizzed with hope and desolation.

Kisha Lewellyn was the voice that thoroughly pierced me on a panel of piercingly adept writers on the topic Stalking the Self. When Lewellyn read, her voice and the words she spoke sounded like music, but also like a quiet, barely registering fear. In her book Fear Icons, she asks “Who are we to each other when we’re afraid?” There’s a sense of terror and beauty in the writing of this Whitman College creative writing professor.

Kate Lebo was among the smart, young writers on the Essay as Ecosystem panel who discussed the interweaving of science, culture, history, and philosophy into their essays. Her forthcoming collection is The Book of Difficult Fruit.

But back to essayists as difference-makers as Stephanie Elizondo Griest referred to the writers gathered that last evening of the conference. She had taken the stage not to stand at the podium, but to practically invite us on stage with her as she talked about “Art Above Everything Else.” Tall, slender, her entire body was expressive as she roamed the stage, kicking a leg behind her as she reversed direction, her long arms gesturing as if to contain her own energy, her own marvel at what she was showing us on the screen – women around the world making art. “Is art enough?” she asked. Elizondo Griest has spent her life writing books about the world she lives in, about the issues that matter to her and so many others. Ten months out of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, she was on stage, exuberant and animated about art, about writing, about how it can make us feel and think and do. Elizondo Griest was an unforgettable presence on stage that night, making a difference.

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Photo by Dr. Stayci Taylor

Claudia Castro Luna’s book Killing Marias is subtitled A Poem for Multiple Voices. Each page addresses the lost life of one of the women or girls disappeared and murdered in Juárez, Mexico on the other side of the border from El Paso, Texas.

Claudia invited me, writer Catalina Cantú, and dancer Milvia Pacheco to share in voicing the Marias for two staged readings of Killing Marias, made possible with the production assistance of Jim Cantú.

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Before the first performance on October 21, we gathered at the Rainier Arts Center one evening for rehearsal.  It was a rainy night. Inside, the theater was cold. The house was dark and the seats were empty. We – the readers, the dancer, and the musicians Trío Guadalevín – were positioned in a semicircle. We ran through the recitation of poems on a half-lit stage.

As someone who writes strictly prose, I often find poetry daunting. But I know enough to understand that the words demand to be read out loud. It’s by sounding out the words, honoring their position on the page, seeing where the line breaks happen, that you find yourself inhabiting them. When there was uncertainty, Claudia coached us, giving us IMG_20181021_131347context and perspective. We wanted our voices to serve the words, to honor the trust Claudia had in us to say them. We wanted to honor the Marias.

During that rehearsal, on stage without an audience, we read and sometimes reread poems, searching for the best effect, the deepest truth, when the words become images become feeling become awareness. The musicians tried out which song was most appropriate to the mood of a particular poem. The dancer let the music guide her movements. It felt to me like magic – poetry, music and dance in a graceful conspiracy to raise the voices of abused and murdered women.

We were reading poems about the Marias, we were women reading the Marias, we were the Marias. That was the rehearsal, and I wondered what the performances would be like.

IMG_20181021_131408It was a sunny fall afternoon for the first of performance on Sunday, October 21. The sun streamed through the windows above the drawn drapes, so the theater was only semi-dark. Still, with the house lights dimmed and the stage lit to feature the readers and musicians and to shimmer upon Milvia when she danced, the atmosphere was elegiac. It was also made celebratory with paper flowers created and lovingly arranged on the stage by Evonne and Quiauxochitl Martinez.

The power of Claudia’s words, the fervor in Milvia’s dancing, the deeply rooted rhythms of Trío Guadalevín were capped by the recitation of the names of the Marias by members of the audience. Those of us on stage and those in the audience were united in this this act of remembrance. It was this reclaiming of women’s lives that is the purpose of the Killing Marias production.

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The second performance is November 4, 2 PM at Centilia Cultural Center. Please join us.

Well, summer is officially over and, as usual, it went by in a blur. But in that blur, there were some, as Virginia Woolf described them, “moments of being,” things felt intensely and shot through with awareness.

In June, my daughter Natalie and I spent her birthday in Tijuana and Rosarito, sampling street tacos, drinking strawberry margaritas, and eating mangoes. At the beach in IMG_20180628_132845Tijuana, we looked through the metal bars that mark the border. We thought of my grandmother, Natalie’s great-grandmother, crossing over in 1924. My grandmother became a citizen in 1943. She missed by a decade the mass deportation of undocumented Mexican immigrants during the racist-named Operation Wetback in 1955, though many American citizens were also indiscriminately snatched up in the round-ups. We thought of how our own lives might have been affected had she been caught up in that dragnet. We thought of the migrant families being separated at the border. On the beach in Rosarito, I bought a bracelet that said Fuck Trump.

IMG_20180715_164440In July, I attended the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference as I do most summers. Morning bike rides, afternoon walks on the beach, the tiny monastic room in which to write were all conducive to reflection and revelation. I took a workshop on flash non-fiction. I wrote a little essay about the mango, its fragrant delicious beauty, how it arrived in Mexico from the Philippines, how its history reflects mine.

In August, I spent two weeks at Mineral School, the artist residency located in the tiny town of Mineral in the IMG_20180831_210504foothills of Mt. Rainier. I finished a fourth revision of one novel and polished up the draft of another. Writing and thinking about writing were enhanced by extracurriculars such as ghosts in the building, local lore about the Tube Sock Killer, and an evening at the town tavern with Mineral School staff where we raised a glass or two with one of the locals.

IMG_20180908_134205_2In September, I went to San Diego for my aunt’s 90th birthday celebration. She wore a sash, a tiara and hand-strung leis. She sat at a table with her friends from high school. When the band played “We Are Family,” the five of them got up and danced. I thought of them as teenage girls in high school, then as young women, and then as all the people they would become over their lifetimes – wives, mothers, wage-earners, grandmothers. Once in a while, I would glance at their table and catch one of them in a “moment of being,” a faraway look in her eye, a wistfulness to her posture, and I would think, these are the things I want to write about.

Border crossings, mangoes, ghosts, and family. It was a good summer.

And now comes the fall and October, my month of reading with famous people.

• On October 5, I’ll be reading with Charles Johnson and Jess Walter at the Humanities Washington Bedtime Stories fundraiser at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel.
• On October 11, I’ll be reading with Kathleen Alcalá and Jamie Ford at Lit Crawl.
• On October 25, I’ll be at the Moore Theater as part of the Ampersand Live line-up that includes Nikkita Oliver and Davida Ingram.

I’m a lucky, lucky writer.

I’m at Mineral School, an artist residency in the town of Mineral, WA (population 200), just off the highway that leads to Mount Rainier.

IMG_20180819_124401My writing studio and my living space is an old classroom. That’s 800 square feet of classroom, bigger than the apartment my husband and I recently moved into. If I knew how to do cartwheels, I would do them. I settle for doing lunges the length of the classroom while curling dumbbells to my chin. (Note: Dumbbells are not among the many amenities of the classroom. After ascertaining that no one else was using the dumbbells, I temporarily removed them from the school gym to my classroom.)

My bike is parked in a corner, but I could probably ride laps in the classroom. No need because there’s a fit desk (in addition to the traditional teacher’s desk) and I can sit at it and pedal while I edit pages or read a book. IMG_20180819_125324

I never have to fold up my yoga mat because space abounds, and I can drop and do a few vinyasa flows on my way to bed or out the door to the Girls bathroom down the hall. Or I can get up and just pace or skate across the floor in my socks. Sometimes, I just sit and think about writing because there’s space to do that too.

My teacher’s desk faces the window and I can see a jigsaw piece of Mineral Lake through the trees. I can see the steeple of the church. I can watch logging trucks roll by stacked with freshly cut timber going one way and empty going the other.

Every morning at 6:50 a.m. I do a 40-minute bike ride. Sometimes, I stop and take pictures.

Sometimes epiphanies happen on bike rides. Epiphany 1 happened on the first full day of the residency on my first bike ride in Mineral. I got back to my desk and rearranged chapters, cut out a minor and (as it turned out) not-so-pivotal character, and eliminated one of the three points of view.

Epiphany 2 happened on the second full day of the residency, again while on my bike. Did I mention I’m working on two novel manuscripts? It’s because the size of this work space almost demands it. It’s like your brain must expand to a space commensurate with the size of the room. This second epiphany showed me the reason for this other novel’s existence and led me to a structural fix. This novel is the perfect manuscript to be working on in a classroom, since many of the scenes take place in school or at least a schoolyard – like these excerpts in The Adirondack Review and Santa Ana River Review.

So far, no Epiphany 3. Maybe the rule is one epiphany per manuscript. Or one epiphany on average per week of residency. But, hey, in this space, anything can happen.

The Mineral School residency was founded and is run by the very smart and wryly funny Jane Hodges who is also performing chef duties during this August residency. Every meal has been delicious, and at every meal I eat a lot because, you know, sitting at a desk for much of the day squeezing out words is a calorie-burning enterprise.

Not all residency time need be spent at a desk. Inspiration time can be spent in pursuits such as

  • a late-night walk to the cemetery to gaze at stars with Jess Martin, Mineral School board member, teacher, marketer, and outdoors woman who knows a lot about a lot.
  • a Tarot reading. Yay for wands in golden light, boo for swords and the anguish of indecision, yay for golden cups that are upright and receptive to gifts.
  • an excursion to the Ashford Creek Pottery and Gallery where the owner Rick Johnson, a lover of Northwest art, gave a personal tour of his collection that includes photos by Mary Randlett, and paintings by Jacob Lawrence, George Tsutakawa, Kenneth Callahan, Amy Nikitani, and James Martin. Johnson also has a collection of books and artifacts about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
  • a visit to Mount Rainier!IMG_20180823_133721 (1)

All of the above and more are made possible by the volunteer staff, which during this residency, includes

  • the charismatic Urban Waite, “a good guy who writes evil things,” who was dorm dad for the first week of this residency.
  • the luminous Katy Hannigan, Artist Trust program manager, who is doing dorm mom duty this week, and also shedding light on the grants application process in a workshop in nearby Morton.

And of course, a residency provides the opportunity to meet other artists. Check out the work of my fellow residents, essayist and memoirist Judy Bolton-Fasman, poet Linda Malnack, and visual artist Gage Opdenbruow.

Applications for next year open December 15. Donations to support this residency can be made here.

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Thanks to a grant from 4Culture, I’ve made progress on my next novel. The working title is OFELIA AND NORMA, based on the main characters. The novel grew from my short story “Strong Girls,” which was first published in Calyx in 2008, anthologized in 2016, and included in my short story collection HOLA AND GOODBYE, also published in 2016.

“Strong Girls” is the story of large and ungraceful twin girls. When they’re recruited for the boys’ wrestling team in high school, their relationship as sisters is challenged and they question their individual identities. But just as they are about to destroy each other on the mat as opponents, the strength of their relationship saves them. The story ends on a positive note. But what happens to these characters beyond that story? What sustains them as they venture farther out into the world, sometimes without each other, sometimes with each other, but always subjected to cultural pressures about who they should be and what they should look like?

My novel takes the reader through the travails of these two young women who, in a world of eating disorders and gender and racial stereotypes, struggle for and achieve a sense of self, affirm their ties to each other and family, and define their place in the world.

This novel marks the first time I have taken characters from a previous work to further explore their needs, wants, and conflicts in a larger and more expansive narrative. While the story was told from one character’s point of view, the novel is told from two points of view – Ofelia’s and Norma’s.

On July 28 from 1:30 to 3:00 pm, I will host an event at the White Center branch of the King County Library. I’ll read short excepts from the novel, engage the audience in discussion of its themes of body image, identity, and sisterhood, and offer some writing prompts. I look forward to an afternoon of talking about themes, character, and other aspects of craft with readers and writers alike.

 

It’s a pile-on of abuse – children torn from their parents at the border, women’s reproductive rights incrementally eroded, health care revoked, environmental protections stripped away. It’s violence upon people (mostly black and brown), country, and planet that is built upon or supported by the daily lies that pour forth from the rumpled lips of the self-involved know-nothing occupying the White House. We suffer outrage overload, we slump from news fatigue, and we carry on. We go to work, we work out, prepare meals, watch Netflix, and go to bed, hoping, dreaming that something somehow will return us to normalcy – you know, the regular levels of racism, sexism, and disregard for the land.

A friend recently posted on Facebook of her own sense of hopelessness about the devastation to the country and the wreckage to the soul. She asked how others cope. Self-care through spiritual practices, humor, and kindness, some responded. Practical steps such as registering voters, and non-political activism such as teaching kids to read or helping people displaced by disaster, others said.

And then there’s art. And belief in the future. The two came together for me recently.

grid-image-largeEarlier this month, I attended the Inside Out In-Residence Showcase in which the four Town Hall artists-in-residence reflected on the events they had curated over the last six months. Photographer Peter DiCampo’s events emphasized the power of the everyday. For one of his event’s, graphic artist Erik Molano invited notable locals to reflect on a neighborhood’s past and discuss how to shape its future. Writer and educator Jordan Alam’s work revolved around the body’s physical memories. Poet and cross-media artist Shin Yu Pai’s approach to her events are summed up beautifully in her own words:

I believe in the power of the arts to facilitate sense-making and dialogue and to inspire radical empathy…to reveal forgotten or buried narratives that illuminate what it is to be human together.

One of Shin Yu’s events featured writer Kathleen Alcala speaking on “History is an Act of the Imagination,” which took place on April 13. After her talk, I joined Kathleen onstage to have a conversation with her about, among other things, the past and present, the living and dead, and faith and science, and how they coexist.

Ana BC CanadaIn keeping with this theme, we had planned to open a letter to the future my daughter Ana had written in 1999 when she was ten years old. Earlier this year, my husband and I were preparing to sell our house, which we had lived in for thirty-four years. We had nearly emptied it of our belongings when Ana emailed me asking me to rescue something she had hidden in the stairs, certain that the buyer of the house would strip and rebuild and the thing she had hidden would be demolished. She said she had put it there in the hopes that the next child who lived in the house would find it. I lifted the tread of the step and found a cookie tin, which contained, among other artifacts, her letter to the future, sealed with a stamp and with instructions not to open it until the year 3010. (Ana granted me permission to open the letter ahead of 3010.)

We ran out of time at Kathleen’s event so the letter to the future remained sealed. Shin Yu invited me to open the letter during her recap of her residency at the artists-in-residence showcase on June 7.

It was in the context and spirit of the residency themes – art and social justice, art and the power of the everyday, and art and our humanness – that I read my daughter’s letter to the future. Ana’s consent to my unsealing the letter and reading it out loud came with the caveat that should it contain anything too personal or embarrassing, I was to stop reading. I agreed, though I was sure that the words of a ten-year-old girl could be nothing but sincere and true.

letterThe letter to the future turned out to have been written on a ready-made form from a kit. It consisted of Ana’s responses to three prompts. Here’s what we learned that evening:

• The best things in her life are her family and her cats (she mentioned all of us, including the cats, by name).
• Her personal goals for the future are to be a soccer player, a singer, or an actress because they are all very important things.
• Her wishes for the future of the world are for “people to stop ‘puluting’ the planet and for people to stop killing, hating, and hurting.”

Ana is 28 years old now. She is not a soccer player, singer, or actress. She’s applying her strength and creativity in other ways. With a master’s degree in regional development and environmental policy, she is pursuing a research project in the Amazon basin in Ecuador to assist the local communities in developing a disaster preparedness plan. Among her friends is a doctor from the Dominican Republic who spends half his time in the jungle serving indigenous populations. She is helping Ecuadorian friends conduct interviews in a Kitchwa community for an animated book of oral legends. She’s writing an article on cultural appropriation for a local magazine for which she also does translation.

Ana Natalie Oly PeninsulaWhen my daughters were little, I had only a few ambitions for them. I wanted them to be educated. I wanted them to be good people. I wanted them to happy. They’re both educated and they’re both good people. The happiness part is trickier. Here’s what I think is true though. Happiness isn’t guaranteed, but you can’t even hope to be happy unless you’re a good person.

The ones separating families at the border are not good people. And there is no goodness in  controlling women’s bodies, taking away health care, and endangering our planet and our future by denying science for the sake of profits.

Yes, we’re weary of the onslaught of injustices. Let’s resist, in whatever way we can, the lies. Use art – literature, music, theater, photography, whatever kind of art – to, as Shin Yu Pai says, “inspire radical empathy.” Let’s reveal and further the narratives “that illuminate what it is to be human together.”