Willow CottageRecently, on the third anniversary of my mother’s death, I went to Hedgebrook to have some writing time as well as to teach at the Summer Salon, a day of small-group writing workshops given in the Hedgebrook cottages. Three years earlier, I had been scheduled to do the same, but the week before my departure for Hedgebrook, my sister messaged me and my siblings that our mother was dying. I flew to San Diego the next day and stayed for two weeks, the amount of time it took to see our mother through her last days and to bury her.

HB deskNow in the woods amid birdsong and five other cottages which housed writers I admire, I wondered what work I could accomplish during my stay, wondered if I would solve the problem of the novel I’m working on. I thought about my mother whose opinion of my writing I could never fully gauge, and I invited her to be with me there as I pondered and wrote, and daydreamed too much when the words did not come. I would ask her questions:

Me: What do you think of this sentence?
Her: Whatever you think is fine.
Me: Is this scene believable?
Her: I don’t really know about those things.
Me: Does this sound too much like a cliché?
Her (with a little laugh, but with a tone that said she meant it): Don’t ask me.

She never liked being asked for an opinion on such things. Fair enough. I would leave her alone.

That first night I turned the dimmer switch on the downstairs lights very low so there was just a glimmer of light inside the cottage when I turned out my bedside lamp in the sleeping loft. I don’t like being in complete darkness. Maybe it comes from a near lifetime of nearsightedness – the inability and insecurity of not seeing clearly and the fear of not seeing at all. Or maybe it’s because I’ve always been a little bit afraid of the dark. Maybe I’m afraid of ghosts. Or I only want to see them in a reassuring glimmer of light.door
I woke early after a fitful night. It was just after five and the light was filtering through the trees and into the uncurtained loft window. As I contemplated getting out of bed, the dimmed downstairs lights blinked off. As soon as I realized what had happened, they blinked back on again. “Mom?” I asked.

I’m on the cusp of believing in the supernatural and mystical, so I was willing to cross the threshold into the twilight zone and presume that the flickering light was a sign from my mother. On the other hand, I can easily be swayed by the workaday notion that a swell or drop of electrical current was the source of the flickering. To be sure, electricity is as explainable to me as the supernatural.

Aside from the question of my mother’s presence, the other mystery before me in my cottage was what to do with the novel I’m working on. I thought it was nearly done – just some easily addressed issues for the revision stage. Wishful thinking. I admit as I was writing, following a plotline that seemed to be pulling me in its, perhaps, wayward direction, I wondered if it was too contrived, too reliant on coincidence. Things could happen this way, I reasoned to myself. But my very wise writing group said no.

So then I thought maybe if I pushed it to the cusp of the surreal, then coincidence becomes believable. But then I would have to write in a new and super-unnatural way for me. I would have tyo become a different writer. Surely, there was another way.
I googled “coincidence in fiction” and found “How to Write Coincidence the Right Way” by Alice Mattison on LitHub. Mattison points out, “Coincidences happen in life; they are suspect only in art.”

So if I’m thinking about my mother in my Hedgebrook cottage because I arrive on the Submittableanniversary of her death, is it a coincidence that the lights blink at me? And is it further coincidence when a few hours later I receive an email from a literary journal accepting for publication an essay I’d written about my mother? But if I were to write about all these coincidences (artfully), does they become suspect? Would I be leaping tall buildings to unfounded conclusions, following an unearned plotline, substituting wishful thinking for cause-and-effect?

In Mattison’s article she gives two examples of coincidence in literature which work. One is a scene from E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End and the other is Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” In the first example, Mattison explains how Forster makes the coincidence unobtrusive by making it unimportant to the key character in the scene. In the O’Connor story, Mattison notes that the blatant coincidence doesn’t bother readers because the characters are unaware of it.

Both are hard to pull off, but, hey, worth a try. Wish me luck. Because luck may be what it’ll take to solve this problem of coincidence in my novel.

Speaking of luck, I had it in heaps, finding myself among the brilliance of the other Hedgebrook Summer Salon teachers. I got to spend time in the fun, funny, thoughtful, and reflective company of Rebecca Brown, Suzanne Kelman, Anastacia Renee, Jennie Shortridge, and Storme Webber. It was magic, which, like coincidence, also happens in life.

I didn’t do any writing on our recent three-week vacation in Spain. I’d brought some work with me – notes on the novel I’m trying to finish, and ideas for a final story to add to a collection I’d previously considered ready to submit. Never touched any of it.

Too busy sightseeing, eating (paella, bocadillos de jamón, tapas, etc.), drinking wine, practicing Spanish, and napping from all the exertion.

I did manage to type into my phone a daily recap of what we’d seen, done, and eaten before the days blurred into each other and our memories were just a mash-up of museums, cathedrals, castles, and tapas bars with no context or chronology.

Midway through the trip – after we’d spent several days each in the bustle and crowds of Madrid and Barcelona – we spent a night at the Hotel Villa Guadalupe in Málaga. It’s at the top of a narrow, winding street in the El Atabal neighborhood about six miles from the centro histórico. Our daughter Natalie once worked at the hotel restaurant for several months after her year of study in Granada in 2006 where, like some bruja or language savant, she became fluent in Spanish in a matter of months. The restaurant is a favorite with locals for birthday, communion, and baptism celebrations. It’s also popular with tourists, so Natalie’s bilingualism was essential, and the Brits often complimented her on how well she spoke English. It was Natalie who suggested we stay at the hotel for the view and the food, which proved to be breathtaking and spectacular, respectively.

Oh, and there’s a pool. I posted a photo on Facebook of me in it, captioned with a lament of having days earlier received a rejection for a writing residency I’d applied for several months ago. My life at that moment was pretty fabulous, so I could drown my sorrow over rejection right there under the bright blue Málaga skies in that brighter blue water rippled by the Mediterranean breeze. Comments on that post favored the pool over the lost residency, which invited the question: what if the pool and its hotel were a residency?

I started to imagine what it would be like to live and write there in that white-walled hotel at the top of the hill with the magnificent view of the city and sea below. That view. It could lull you with its beauty into a stupor. Hard to write when stupefied. So, maybe a writing residency at one of the other stays my husband diligently researched and booked for us would be more conducive.

In Madrid, our Airbnb apartment was in an 18th century building. The apartment was quite spacious and had an old world, worn elegance – heavy wooden dining table, cherubim hanging on the walls like escapees from a church or art museum, a balcony that looked out on an old, narrow, stone street.

The building was situated in writerly environs, not far from a street named for Cervantes, a plaque honoring philosopher Jose Ortega y Gassett, and the home of playwright/poet/novelist Lope de Vega. If I wrote in this 18th century building, would 18th century ghosts sit at the table with me? Maybe spirits of the Enlightenment. Or specters from the downfall of the Spanish Empire, precipitated by the War of Spanish Succession that resulted in Spain ceding Gibraltar to Britain.

Speaking of Gibraltar, we stayed overnight at The Rock Hotel in a room with a balcony that faced the harbour (spelled with a u because it’s a British harbor, though, of course, if the Spanish owned it, it would be puerto.) I could possibly see myself sitting at the desk in that room, the balcony doors open to the sounds of seagulls, ship and boat horns, the vroom of motor scooters, maybe a stray macaque wandering down from the rock. There would be the problem of the sun in my eyes for half the day. So a good pair of sunglasses would be a must.

In Barcelona, we were in a small, but cozy two-bedroom apartment in Poble Sec, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. Our Airbnb host was a New Zealander. The people above us were Russian. The neighborhood was home to many Moroccans and other Africans. It was an interesting, vibrant place to be. The balcony offered a view of a mixed residential and business street. Across from us a community center was lively until 11 each night, except weekends when conversations lasted until 5 am. If I wrote here, maybe those voices would fill my writing the way they filled my sleep.

In Granada, we were in a fifth-floor apartment on one of the narrow, one-way streets that intersect Gran Via. From the dining room, living room, and main bedroom, we had a view of the Catedral de Granada and the Capilla where Fernando and Isabel are buried. The apartment was a short walk to the Albaicín, the old Arab quarter, and the path uphill to the Mirador de San Nicolas, where we went every day to take in the view of the Alhambra and listen to musicians play guitar, sing, and clap the rhythm. There was always a late afternoon and evening breeze. And even though we were surrounded by tourists taking selfies, there was still something magical about that particular spot. Later, we would sit at the dining room table, me facing the window where the cathedral would begin to glow in the evening sky and I would type on my little portable keyboard the events of the day. What would insinuate itself if I wrote there daily, facing that cathedral – me, a non-believer? Granada

By far, our favorite place to stay was the Airbnb apartment above the Plaza de las Flores in Málaga’s centro histórico. It was a spacious three-bedroom, with two of the bedrooms looking down on the plaza occupied by several small restaurants and a constant flow of people. Every evening, music – Flamenco guitar or classical piano – would drift up to our windows. At 11 pm, I would watch the workers put away tables and chairs and roll up the awnings. It was a noisy enterprise that went on past midnight. The restaurant lights would go out, but the deserted plaza stayed lit and bathed in yellow like a dreamscape. Malaga plaza

Malaga itself was a dream, easy to fall in love with – smaller city and smaller crowds than Madrid and Barcelona, a perfect climate, and the trademark Andalucía mix of Moorish, Jewish, and Christian history blended in its architecture. Plus, the jacarandas were in full flower while we were there, painting the city with swaths of indigo. The apartment, on the other hand, had a monochrome décor – white walls, gray bedspreads and drapes, black and white art on the walls. It was as if it was daring me to be imaginative and write my own best work. Yes, this is the place I could write. Malaga apt

Every month is literary for readers and writers, but it seemed like April has been especially full of events for me, both as participant and audience. Here’s a brief rundown:

AWP

I’m going to cheat and start with AWP, which was at the end of March, so practically April, right? I went to a lot of panels and gleaned these nuggets:

  • From the panel on putting together an anthology, which included luminous poet Kelli Russell Agodon: The role of the anthology is to bring whatever is missing to light, to break ground, to open doors, to open readers’ minds.
  • From the panel on decolonizing travel writing moderated by exuberantly peripatetic Faith Adiele: Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel has a mission to “transform the faces of travel and travel writing to reflect the true diversity and complexity of our world.”
  • From the panel on writing book reviews: Reflect the language and experience of the book you’re reviewing. Combine close analysis with cultural analysis. Don’t punish a writer for failing to accomplish what she never intended to do.
  • From the panel on Latinx speculative fiction moderated by Kathleen Alcalá: What is speculative in the mainstream is real life in real time for Latinx writers.

55793558_10161490921410363_6149085745467359232_o-1Also, I read at an AWP off-site event in the great company of Margaret Malone, Kristen Millares Young, Jason Arias, Woody Skinner, and Sidney Wade. Many thanks to Atelier 26 Books and Moss: A Journal of the Pacific Northwest for organizing the event!

I bought a lot of books, more than I should’ve, more than I intended to, more than my downsized shelves in our downsized apartment allow. One item that doesn’t take up much space but packs a wallop is One Story Issue Number 251 which is Natalie Serber’s excellent story “Children are Magic.” The story is magic. Serber’s writing is sharp, funny, and poignant. You can order a copy here.

Soniah Kamal, Elliott Bay Books – April 3

img_20190403_202035-1At the beginning of April, I attended Soniah Kamal’s talk about her novel Unmarriageable. She was fierce funny, and fervent as she talked about her writing, her affection for Jane Austen and her novels, and the effects of colonization on her education and her identity as a Pakistani American woman raised in the British system. She was rightfully and deeply pained when she referred to the epigraph by Thomas Babington Macaulay she included in Unmarriageable which begins “…I have never found one among them (Orientalists) who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia…”

Orcas Island Literary Festival – April 5-7

img_20190407_095244The first weekend in April, I made the trip to the Orcas Island Literary Festival with three top-notch Seattle writers – Jennie Shortridge, Sonora Jha and Claudia Rowe. We were on various panels at this terrific festival, which featured headliners such as Mat Johnson and Terese Mailhot. We were lucky enough to be housed in a cabin in Beach Haven with a deck yards away from the Salish Sea, which provided the perfect atmosphere for a little bit of Sunday morning writing before we headed back to Seattle.

Guest in Rebecca Brown’s Creative Writing Class, UW Bothell – April 12

Rebecca Brown was one of my first writing teachers, so it was very special to be invited to talk to her creative writing students at UW Bothell. Her students had read Hola and Goodbye. We had a wonderful discussion about immigration, language, names, and other issues that appear in my book, and students offered up examples from their own experiences. They were such careful readers of the book and asked thoughtful questions.

It was an afternoon as productive and vibrant as the wetland that fittingly surrounds Rebecca’s classroom. The diversity of a wetland is sort of a metaphor for the depth of Rebecca Brown’s writing and teaching prowess.

In his review of her most recent book, Paul Constant called Rebecca Brown the “smartest writer in Seattle.”

Aside from “genius,” the other word I would use to describe Rebecca Brown is “elemental.” And I mean that in both senses of the word. Anyone who has seen her sweep into a group reading knows that she is a force of nature. She has turned entire rooms upside down with five-minute readings because she is a Category 5 Writer.

But the lesser-used definition of “elemental” is my favorite interpretation of Brown’s writing. As our understanding of the universe has grown as a species, we’ve learned more and more about the very smallest pieces of everything — from the classical understanding of elements to molecules to atoms to protons and neutrons to quarks and leptons. Brown isn’t just a genius at words. She’s a genius at the invisible forces that bind words together….

In addition to being one of my first writing teachers of fiction, Rebecca will also be one of my first writing teachers in non-fiction. I’ve signed up for her workshop at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference this summer. Can’t wait.

Kathleen Alcalá and Leigh Calvez, University Bookstore – April 15

With the release of her book The Deepest Roots in paperback, Kathleen Alcalá appeared at the University Bookstore with naturalist writer Leigh Calvez, who talked about her book The Breath of a Whale. These authors reminded us of the fragility of our planet and of how survival depends on sustainable practices.

Valeria Luiselli at SAL – April 17

Valeria Luiselli read excerpts from Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions and her new novel Lost Children Archive and talked about how the two are intertwined both in terms of their content and her process of creating them. “It’s never inspiration that makes you tell a story,” she said. “It’s rather things such as anger.”
More gems:

I write with my ears. Completely.
A novel is about rhythm. You have to find a kind of respiration to take you all the way.

New Suns Anthology Reading, University Bookstore – April 18

mvimg_20190418_185831Nisi Shawl, author of the recent Everfair, edited the anthology New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction By People of Color. She was joined by contributors E. Lily Yu and Alberto Yáñez who read their stories. Yáñez talked about how his Mexican heritage and his background in religious studies influence his work. Yu, whose story “Three Variations on a Theme of Imperial Attire” slyly demurred to comment on whether her story of a “vain and foolish emperor, who made up for his foolishness by a kind of low cunning” was inspired by the current political landscape.

The forward is by LeVar Burton who writes “…these stories are delivered by vibrant, authentic voices bursting to weigh in on the human condition and our journey of human evolution.”

Bibliophilia Storytelling Festival: Beginning, Middle, and End – April 19

MVIMG_20190419_194111Bibliophilia was Paul Constant’s Literary Event of the Week for the week of April 15-21. It was my first experience with this festival, and it was one of the most fun and most creative events I’ve been lucky enough to take part in. My role was easy. I was the Beginning of Beginning, Middle and End. I read three-fourths of one of my Angie Rubio stories, then I turned it over to the group of improv actors who provided the Middle. They picked up where my story left off and brilliantly improvised a continuation of the story. It was amazing to watch them assume the lives of these characters and create their own story. It was funny, tender, and absolutely brilliant. And ephemeral. Unscripted, the words and gestures were of the moment. Such fleeting art, and, wow, these actors were good. The performance was capped by a poem by Jalayna Carter, created in response to my story and the improv. It was a fitting and lovely End. Bibliophilia is the brainchild of the multi-talented Jekeva Philiips, “a writer and idea machine driven by enthusiasm for the collaborative.”

Paul Constant said of Bibliophilia “… it’s fun to get some creative people into a room and reimagine ways in which literature can interact with other arts, too. When you experiment with two potent forms like literature and theater, you’re likely to invent something interesting along the way.” Really, I couldn’t agree more.

The All-American Oriental Magic Show – April 20

In her one-woman show, Maritess Zurbano performed magic while telling the story of the racist and sexist obstacles she faced in becoming a magician. Maritess astonished us with her sleight of hand, made us laugh with her unscripted banter, and left us wanting more of her wit, skill, and talent. She’s written a memoir, so someone needs to get her a book deal so we can all read it.

Guest in Peter Donahue’s class – April 24

I did a video chat with Peter Donahue’s class at Wenatchee Valley College at Omak, that is, after I fumbled away ten minutes trying to figure out how to make the audio work. His students asked great questions. I’m always delighted to find how carefully students read a book as part of a class assignment. I’m so appreciative of teachers who assign my work to their students. Peter is the author of three novels and a short story collection, and the editor of several anthologies.

Mineral School Annual Benefit – April 25

This festive gathering was a chance to support Mineral School, an artist residency program housed in the former elementary school of the town of Mineral in the foothills of Mount Rainier. It was also a chance to meet and mingle with former residents and appreciate the dedication and hard work of the board, staff, and intrepid founder and director Jane Hodges. Mineral School is a unique residency that can have a profound impact on an artist’s life. I wrote about my residency here.

Congratulations to the 2019 residents! To support these and future residents, you can donate here.

There are no book-related events on my calendar for May. My husband and I are off to Spain to see art at the Prado in Madrid, architecture in Barcelona, the Moorish palace in Granada, the Picasso Museum in Málaga, and that rock of British territory on the Iberian Peninsula.

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.

Old woman

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.