Last week at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, I took notes at the craft lectures I attended. I typed them up, one sentence per line. Some of the sentences began to wander out of order, began to find each other to make these stanza things. I’m not a poet and I apologize to the poets for the form these notes assumed.

Thanks to Dan Chaon, Sam Ligon, Melissa Febos, and Annie Proulx for their insightful and valuable words.


 

A few of my notes from Dan Chaon’s craft lecture
“Observation, Detail, and the Uncanny”

As a child, I had a fear of shoes. They always looked like they were screaming.
Something familiar suddenly becomes strange.
The piano is grinning.

 

An object takes on a kind of glow. A sense of aliveness.
The metaphor leaps into you.
You do not choose the song that loops in your head.

 

What’s real is the sleepwalking part. The dream is the awakeness.
Writing is making meaning out of something that is random.
Uncanniness is a break in our experience of the logical world.

 

Be in a place where you’re not driving the boat.


 

A few of my notes from Sam Ligon’s craft lecture
“The Art and Craft of the Artisan Craft Cocktail”

The mysteriousness of writing is what people refer
to when they say writing can’t be taught.

 

We don’t want to understand the mysterious part.
Once we solve the craft problem at hand, it’s not going to apply again.

 

Habits can be cultivated, including the habit of art.
Process can’t be taught except for the part that can be taught.

 

How do we become invisible in our work and still be all over it?
Do what you can get away with.

 

I cling to a need to know what I’m doing.
I also cling to a need not to know.

 

Craft is a sinking raft.
Let go and swim.


 

A few of my notes from Melissa Febos’s craft lecture
“In Defense of Navel Gazing”

The bias against personal essays is a sexist mechanism to subordinate women.
Sexism hurts everybody.

 

You are allowed to tell your own story.
Writing about our own wounds is the only way to be free.

 

The artfulness of writing is craft.
Content will not substitute for craft.

 

Memoir is the opposite of narcissism.
Memoir is annihilating the self-image that pleases you.

 

Don’t avoid yourself. Let the stories in.
Refusing to write your story can make you a monster.

 

I don’t believe in writer’s block.
I only believe in fear.


 

A few of my notes from Annie Proulx’s
“Tips”

If you want to create shapely sentences, write them by hand.
It’s not a bad idea to mix beautiful writing with pedestrian paragraphs.

 

When you get stuck on a piece of writing, walk in a beautiful place.
There’s a connection between walking and working out words in your head.

 

Know about what you write rather than write about what you know.
It’s important for writers to read. It’s the old way of learning how to write.

 

Tackle big themes. It’s terribly important to know history.
Writers have a responsibility to the period they live in.

 

Never think you’re the cat’s pajamas.


Dan Chaon-COLLAGE

I was a runner for thirty-five years. Over those three and a half decades, I sustained minor injuries– shin splints, turned ankles, a wrenched knee – but nothing that sidelined me for long. I ran during both my pregnancies. I ran as soon as I could after I gave birth. I ran in rain, snow, heat, and in gales of wind. I thought I would always run.

I was never a fanatic about running. It was a discipline I acquired after meeting my husband. I’d been fickle about it before I met him, taking it up every so often and then abandoning it out of the blue or letting it peter out.

And I was never fast, though my skinny limbs and a good stride could give the illusion of speed. At my best, I averaged an above-average 7:15 minute-mile in a 5K race. My husband was the fast one. But it was his dedication to the sport that inspired me. Or maybe I was guilted by his example into putting on my running shoes and getting out the door. Eventually, though, I developed my own running habit so that even when my mind could rationalize skipping a run, my body insisted on one. Running had become part of who I was.

Last year in early June, my mother was preparing to die. I flew to San Diego to be with my siblings so together we could see our mother through her last days. I stayed in my mother’s house as I always did whenever I visited, and each morning I would take a short run, making loops in the park across the street and around the soccer-football field. Even after nights without sleep because it was my turn to stay up with mom, I went running.

After my mother’s funeral, I returned home to Seattle and went for a run. Or I tried to. A pain in my hip forced me to stop after a mile. I thought the pain was a result of having waited too long to replace my running shoes, so I went out and bought the newest version of my favorite brand and model. The new version came in teal with hot pink 19206381_815508098604_1566557480_naccents, colors that were outside of the normal color spectrum of my running attire. But the shoes were a good fit.

I put them on and went for a run, and again I was stopped by the pain in my hip. Rest it for a week or two, I told myself. Let it heal. I rested it from running and substituted biking. But when I tried again to run, the pain was still there.

Over the next months, I underwent a sports rehab regimen, tried acupuncture, was x-rayed, visited a physical therapist, and had massage therapy. Mild arthritis, said the doctor, but it shouldn’t interfere with running. Strengthen your core, said the PT and the chiropractor. While I continue to do the strengthening exercises, there seems to be little change. Sometimes I think the pain has become worse.

I’m biking more and have taken up the elliptical at the gym. I do yoga and lift weights. I miss running.

Was it just coincidence that after my mother died something happened to my body that prevented me from running? Or did this particular part of my body take the brunt of the hit, absorbing the loss of my mother, storing the grief?

For the first anniversary of my mother’s death, I returned to National City to spend time with my siblings. I packed the running shoes that I had stored in their original box after I realized I wouldn’t be running for a while. Though the shoes were meant for running, I used them when I exercised on my sister’s rowing machine each morning.

I stayed at the house again, but it’s my sister’s house now. I helped her weed the garden. She and I, the wayward Catholic, attended a mass said in my mother’s name. My siblings and other family members and I took a picnic lunch to the cemetery. We observed the moment of our mother’s passing a year ago by playing her favorite song.

Marking the first year without our mother was about letting go, but also about holding on to her. She’s a part of each of us, of who we are.

But now who I am is someone who doesn’t run anymore.

Maybe I held a little hope that I would get my running back after a year. That by some coincidence the pain in my hip that appeared so suddenly after my mother’s death would just as suddenly disappear a year later. That it would heal given a year of rest and well-intentioned rehab.

Maybe it was just magical thinking. Maybe the healing will never be complete.19357623_10158772257355363_1804667943_n.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

When you’re waitlisted for the residency you applied for and you’re convinced that being waitlisted is as good as a rejection, you come up with Plan B because your characters are begging for attention, anxious to be nudged from their torpor. So you arrange time off from your day job, secure in the knowledge that your favorite project at work, having jumped an initial hurdle, is now off and running. You go in search of a room you can call your own for five days using the money (plus some) you had set aside for airfare had you gotten the residency.

Room requirements aside from a desk, a bed, a shower, and a fridge and microwave? Minimal travel time from Seattle and a view of the water.

A motel in Bremerton, little more than a ferry ride away, was exactly the thing. I found the Flagship Inn online and read the Yelp reviews. These are the comments that sold me on it:

I’ll be honest, it’s not much to look at when you pull up; it does have some paint peeling on the exterior and its old…. like when you get inside you feel like you just stepped onto an early 80s Golden Girls set.

When I drove up, my first thought was: “What was I thinking?” It looks like something from the pre-Interstate era (which it probably is)…

This is not an up-to-date motel…

Who wouldn’t want to stay here? Plus, each room has a balcony with a view of Oyster view from deskBay, one of the many inlets in the zig-zag of the Kitsap Peninsula. On a clear day, the Olympics are visible. Every day gives a view of water, trees and clouds. The view invites long hours indoors because the street side of the motel is in a commercial zone rampant with fast food restaurants and discount retail.

The balcony caught the late afternoon and early evening sun. It’s where I ate my lunch and dinner. Other amenities included DVD/VCR unit, library in lobby of movie videos, fax machine (!), none of which I availed myself. There was also a tiny exercise room and I did make use of its clanking elliptical.

After my workout each morning, I grabbed oatmeal, fruit, juice, and tea from the continental breakfast bar and ate in my room while I alternately enjoyed my view of the bay and read the news. It was the week of Sally Yates on the stand, James Comey on the L. A. freeway, and Sean Spicer in the bushes.

DeskAfter breakfast, I settled in for the slow slog at the computer. I’ve never been a writer who gets in the zone and bangs feverishly at the keyboard. I do a lot of fidgeting and staring into space or, in this case, out the balcony at the view, every so often tapping a word or two or ten.

I wrote and read for most of the day, breaking to make a salad for lunch and a sandwich for dinner, and leaving the room once each day for a not very interesting walk along the four-lane thoroughfare that fronted the motel. Around ten o’clock each night I turned on the TV. One of the other motel amenities was the daily TV guide – an 8” by 14” sheet of paper delivered each morning by the housekeeping staff. I had little use for it, but it was among the several small gestures of hospitality from this quaint establishment. Oh, and there’s free Wi-Fi and the water pressure in the shower is excellent.

It was a good week. I wrote some new pages, revised many others, and worked through some structural problems for the first section of a new novel. It would’ve been a great View from balconyweek if not for that phone call halfway through from a colleague at work informing me that our beloved project was being shut down. My room with a view of water and trees and clouds and a glimpse of the Olympics was a comfort as I first ranted out loud and then furiously began tapping out a list of arguments for saving the project before eventually refocusing on my novel. But too soon, it was time to leave the world of fictional characters and conflicts for real ones.

Goodbye, Flagship Inn. Goodbye, view. It’s back to the day job.

There’s a great monthly reading series at Phinney Books called Dock Street Salon. It’s organized by Dane Bahr and Heather Jacobs of Dock Street Press, a boutique publishing house in Ballard. The press was founded by folks who believe that “a book is a piece of art.” Dock Street brings that same sensibility to the reading series with the goal of stimulating thoughtful conversation and creating community.

Phinney Books, a small, cozy space in Greenwood, is a great place to do that. It’s owned by former Jeopardy champion Tom Nissley. I remember watching Nissley on the show, struck by his quiet demeanor as he calmly cleaned up the board. No wild jabbing at the buzzer, no panicky shouting of answers. Just an understated delivery of correct replies from a human fount of knowledge.

Nissley opens each salon with a reading from his A Reader’s Book of Days, a collection of literary anecdotes, facts, and events in the lives of famous writers, organized by day of the year. For example, on the evening of April 20, the date of the most recent salon, Nissley shared what happened on April 20, 1827:

Charles and Alfred Tennyson, ages eighteen and seventeen, celebrated the publication of Poems by Two Brothers by riding to the coast and shouting their verses into the wind and waves.

Nissley’s tribute to literary ancestors adds to the sense of community fostered by the salon. We were tickled by the image of the Tennyson brothers bellowing odes at the ocean and imagined ourselves doing the same next time we’re out on the peninsula. It readied us to inhabit the stories told by the three writers featured at last Thursday’s salon.

It was a well harmonized trio of writers whose individual works made for a fine sequence of narratives – a lively, story of a smart but troubled teenage girl clashing with the adults around her; a relaxed, easygoing delivery of the hilarity involved in confronting a rude birder; and a meditative piece about moving forward after a breakdown in trust.

Ann Teplick led off the evening with an excerpt from her YA novel in progress. I’m a fan of Ann’s poetry and anxiously await the completion of her collection of Motown poems which dazzle with the images of the Motown era and capture the personal and collective restiveness of those times. The same vibrant language and energetic rhythms of her poetry infuse her prose. Her excerpt from Hey, Baby, Wanna Dance? was a delight to listen to with its humor, sharp observations, and convincing voice of an intelligent but unsettled teen.IMG_20170420_191048-COLLAGE

Jennifer Munro, known for her witty, humorous essays, read a piece called “Birders Behaving Badly,” an account of an encounter with another birder while on a boat in the Strait of Juan de Fuca off Protection Island. The island is a refuge for birds, which is closed to visitors to protect the fragile habitat for about 70 percent of the nesting seabird population of Puget Sound and the Strait. Among the polite society of birders crowded on deck, binoculars raised to their faces to spot auklets, gulls, and puffins, is one not-so-polite birder who blames Munro for her inability to get a good look at the action. Munro’s telling of her own in-your-face confrontation with her accuser is funny and satisfying. Munro blogs at Straight-No-Chaser Mom.

Memoirist Ann Liu Kellor read an excerpt from a personal essay called “Heron” about betrayal and the restorative effects of nature and its ability to center us in the midst of feeling lost. It’s a pensive, introspective look at how a forfeiture of trust can threaten one’s sense of self, and how re-establishing that sense of self and declaring “I am here” can involve etching an indelible symbol of the natural world on one’s body and perhaps one’s soul. An element of Kellor’s essay dealt with the story of the tattoo on her arm. Upon request, she revealed it – a gorgeous bird feather, which elicited gasps of appreciation.

During the Q and A, I asked the writers what books they were reading. Here are their responses in case you want to add to your reading list.

Ann Liu Kellor – The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit and When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams

Jennifer Munro – Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, Lust and Wonder by Augusten Burroughs, and Shrill by Lindy West

Ann Teplick – The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward (and Ann is re-reading The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin)

And don’t forget to read work by Kellor, Munro, and Teplick. It’s all a Google search away.

flamingoA “Las Vegas virgin” is what a fellow guest at The Flamingo called me when he learned that this was my first visit to Sin City. I had sidled along the hallway after depositing my bag in my room to avoid photobombing the selfie with his companion. They turned around and saw me and we immediately engaged in friendly banter because that’s what people on vacation do – like a secret handshake to celebrate not being in the office in the middle of the week. Like me, they had just arrived. Unlike me, this was their thousandth time in Las Vegas. They were positively giddy, perhaps even a little drunk. When I confessed I didn’t gamble, the man was beside himself and seemed to believe it was his mission to correct such a failing. “If I give you some money, will you gamble? Please, please?” He was practically evangelical. His companion smiled gamely. I politely declined. We parted ways in the lobby.

At the Bellagio buffet that evening with my sisters and brother-in-law, our drinks server looked to be about a hundred years old, or at least as if she had worked in Vegas since Bugsy Siegel opened The Flamingo with a mere 105 of its current 3,626 rooms. She was tiny and hunched over and walked lopsidedly, maybe from an arthritic hip. Her hair was dyed red with gray splotches blooming at the roots. Her face was heavily rouged, powder clumping in her wrinkles. Her red, outside-the-lines lipstick and turquoise eyelids showed signs of multiple touch-ups. Carrying a tray of drinks was punishing work. I wanted her to win the jackpot so she could retire and rest her weariness for good. I started to see them everywhere in the casinos and bars – little old ladies shuffling under heavy trays of margaritas. I wanted them all to lounge in chairs by the pool while someone brought them margaritas.

A severely bruised foot limited my mobility, so while my sisters and brother-in-law roamed The Strip on our only full day in town, I went in search of a sunny place to sit and read. Casino hotels are designed for sitting at slot machines or blackjack tables, not for sitting in the sun, book or writing tablet in hand. The pool, with its inviting lounge chairs, was a day away from opening for the season. I ended up finding a sunny bench near the valet circle. I watched as middle-aged foursomes waited for their ride to golf in the desert. Golf courses in the desert! Yes, forty-five of them, all of which will inevitably see a sharp decline in duffers as climate change intensifies the desert heat and threatens already scarce water supplies.

Back inside as I was limping along a line of shops, a young woman dangled a little plastic gift bag in my direction. I looked around to see who else she might be gesturing to, but no, it was me she had singled out. I obliged, though I knew better. She scanned my sixty-three-year-old face. “What kind of moisturizer do you use?” she asked. “Burt’s Bees,” I said. She looked puzzled. “Never heard of that,” she said dismissively and thrust the little bag in my hands. “This is an organic moisturizer. It’ll do wonders.” Suddenly her equally young co-worker was on the other side of me, extending his clammy hand and peering past my glasses at the skin beneath my eyes. “How old are you?” I told him, and he said, “Well, then you have nothing to lose, sweetie.” He strode to a chair in the salon, clearly expecting me to follow him there. “Wait,” I said, “did you call me sweetie?” Apparently, my question was rhetorical as it elicited no response from the smiling young man. I waved goodbye and hobbled away.

I had invited myself on this trip. My sisters had planned it because my youngest sister had missed the Donny and Marie Osmond show when it played in San Diego. Why not head to Vegas and catch their act at The Flamingo? Why not indeed? I saw the trip as anwith-cres opportunity for us to connect with a friend of our parents, a man they had known in their romantic youth when they were barely in their twenties. Cres Miranda’s name appears as a witness on our parents’ marriage certificate. At eighty-eight years old, he drove himself the 300 miles from Las Vegas to San Diego to attend our mother’s funeral last June. The trip is familiar to him. Each February, he drives the five hours to place roses on his wife’s grave. He will be buried there, too, he told us over lunch.

He and my father were in the navy together. He’s from Cavite, Philippines, not far from my father’s hometown of Las Piñas. They were stewards – basically servants to the fleet – because that was the only job open to Filipinos back then. The man who would marry one of my mother’s sisters was also a steward who had worked his way up to the rank of chief. That was my Uncle Tony. He was valet to the admiral. He was older and watched out for younger Filipinos like my father and Cres, helped create a community for them.

Cres recalled how the group of friends often showed up for Sunday dinner at my Mexican grandmother’s house. How they went to dances and clubs together. How they eventually all married and started families and lost touch with one another. How in the 90s, his cardiologist son with a practice in Las Vegas bought a house for him near his own.

All these years later, it’s a sweet happenstance that we can know Cres and hear about his life, his wife, and children, and what took him to last Vegas and what will take him back to San Diego.

As for the Donny and Marie show, we looked around at the audience we were part of – gray, bespectacled, thick in the waist –  and we realized, hey, this is our demographic. We are them. They are us. We are all basking in nostalgia as the three big screens positioned in the show room flash images of Donny and Marie as children, then teenagers, young adults, and now on the verge of their sixties, their careers spanning five decades.

Later, courtesy of tickets from Cres, we saw the Legends show in which tribute singers recreate the hits of Janis Joplin, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, and Elvis Presley. More nostalgia. It, like the septuagenarian drinks servers, was everywhere.

In my hotel room, there was a photo of The Flamingo the way it looked when it opened inflamingos 1946. Even the current building, with its South Beach style architecture, has a garden courtyard featuring flamingos – a bird native to the Americas only in the Caribbean islands, Caribbean Mexico, Belize, and Galapagos islands. It’s nostalgia for something that never existed in the United States.

At night when The Strip is lit, the air pulses with the ionized neon. During the day, the relentless flow of fun seekers on the streets and through the casinos is briefly exhilarating and quickly exhausting. Yet one’s fascination of the place and the curiosity about the people who come here is cowboyslimitless. The non-celebrity singers and dancers who come to perform. The hotel desk staff whose name tags note their home cities. The aged and aging drinks servers. The two half-naked, cowboy-hat-wearing young studs posing with their hands over their genitals whom I encountered on a limp around the block. What brings them here? Okay, for the cowboys, that’s a gimme. But what keeps them and the others here? What dreams have passed them by. What dreams do they still cling to? How will their stories end?

Even though I was ready to leave Las Vegas when my 42 hours were up, I won’t rule out another trip in the (far) future to discover some answers. Or at least more impressions so I can make up answers of my own.

When I was in college I took a geology class. I learned about igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks. I learned about formations and their layers of sand and stone. Whatever their scale – the immensity of a cliff or the insignificance of a pebble – I saw them as inert and objective, separate from or subordinate to the stories of people, including the story of me. Until I heard Lauret Savoy at the AWP conference earlier this month pose questions such as these:

What’s my relationship with history – told and untold on this land? Is it personal as well as geologic?

Savoy’s words pulled me in and I knew immediately that her talk would be the highlight of the conference for me, even though it was only three hours into the first day of the three-day event.

The conference can be overwhelming not just because of the 12,000 writers it draws, but because of the multiple panels from which to choose. I’m often torn, afraid of what I’ll miss out on by skipping one in favor of another. Sometimes I make the right decision – the speakers are engaging, the topic is as advertised, and I’m busily jotting down notes. Sometimes I’m wrong and wonder if I should duck out of the disappointing one and sidle in late to another.

In the four years I’ve attended panels at AWP, how many times have I found myself breathless, blinking back tears, feeling as if the earth had opened up? Exactly once – when I heard Lauret Savoy speak this year.

I’m a fiction writer who occasionally writes an essay, but without actually knowing how to do it, having never really studied the form. I decided to forego the panel on finding structure in fiction and attend instead the panel titled “Imagining the Essay.”

Rebecca McClanahan spoke first and I scribbled such tasty morsels as “each digression spirals, taking us closer to the heart of the essay.” And “ the collision of the different selves.”

I was happy to write these down, even though I had only a sketchy understanding of them. It felt gratifying to take notes. I was more than satisfied with McClanahan’s talk. I thought to myself, yes, this panel was a good choice. Then Lauret Savoy came to the podium and I realized it was a wondrous choice.filtered

Savoy spoke of literary geology and how the history of human experience owes much to the structure of the land.” Literary geology,” she said, “gives us metaphor and language to explore displacement and erosion of human experience over time.”

I nodded, only slightly, but it was as if a rockslide had started in my head. As if the images collected from that geology class decades ago were shaken from dormancy and exploded to bits. Once the dust had settled, there was a whole new vista, a brand-new landscape.

“The U.S. is a country of ghosts,” Savoy said, “each of us affected by memory and loss. When we re-member, we are putting the pieces back together.”

And then this: “Put the eroded world back into words and transform silence.”

It was not just her words that reverberated in me, but the voice that delivered them. Musical and layered, her voice carried the deeply-felt experiences and accumulated geologies of her life.

The only downside of Savoy’s talk was that it ruined me for the remainder of the panel. I couldn’t concentrate on the words of the two speakers who followed her. My brain and heart were still buzzing with her words. Her voice.

When I returned to Seattle, I bought her book Trace at my neighborhood bookstore, trace-pen-finalistPhinney Books. The book is richly subtitled Memory, History, Race and the American Landscape. This is from the prologue:

I’ve long felt estranged from time and place, uncertain of where my home lies. My skin, my eyes, my hair recall the blood of three continents as paths of ancestors – free and enslaved Africans, colonists from Europe, and peoples indigenous to this land – converge in me.

She writes,

Though I’ve racked long-bygone moments on this continent from rocks and fossils – those remnants of deep time – the traces of a more intimate, lineal past have seemed hidden or lost.

And she invites the reader,

Come with me. We may find that home lies in re-membering – in piecing together the fragments left – and in reconciling what it means to inhabit terrains of memory, and to be one.

How can we not follow her?

The clothes were smashed together, compressed like prom roses in a scrapbook, faded and musty. Slacks, blouses, jackets, sweaters, and skirts crammed two tiers of rods. Hangars bowed from the years of weight. There was something guileless in the arrangement.

My sisters and I gathered in the room to dismantle the still life.

There were also two dressers and a chest at the foot of the bed. All filled with clothes my mother had once worn or never worn or worn nearly to ruin. All of these spaces we would empty.

My mother had spent her last years in sweat pants and sweatshirts, rotating among a few sets of each. The clothes in her closet had barely been touched in recent years. Some of the clothes were stained from age. Dust had settled on them. Soon we were all sneezing.

It was seven months after our mother’s death. I, the out-of-towner, had returned to do an author event. It was an opportunity for the four of us to go through our mother’s closet, decide what we wanted to keep, what we would give away.

The oldest of us slid open the closet door and began removing items one by one. The styles ranged over decades – padded-shoulder blazers of the eighties, blouses in op-art prints, oversized sweaters, and more than one leopard-print jacket or windbreaker. The variety of sizes reflected our mother’s fluctuations in weight as she sometimes dieted, other times let her body reach its natural dimensions.

It was quick work for the most part. Look at this, we said to each other, holding up this or that item as if we were browsing a department store rack. What about this, we asked, suggesting that one or another of us might wear it or keep it for some other unknown reason.

Before my mother retired in the early 90s from her job as a retail clerk, she had an active wardrobe of slacks and skirts, blouses and sweaters, casual flats and low-heeled sandals.

There were lots of reds. My mother wore red well. Even the ugly red Christmas sweater. It’s a color that’s bold and upbeat, which my mother could be even though at heart she was shy. There were earthy colors too, which complemented her skin tone.

And the cool colors – deep blues and purples, which I think she preferred later in life. I could be wrong about this. After all, I’m the one who lived away all these years, seeing her a mere once or twice a year, and otherwise only talking to her on the phone – something she wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about. The phone was awkward, just our voices being transmitted, no image of our furrowed brows, darting eyes, or the clothes we were wearing that might hint at our feelings, our unspoken needs and wants, or the ways we may have failed each other.

Then there were the black clothes. Basic, goes-with-anything black. Somber. Chic. Arty like the black button-down sheath with white piping. Something that might have been in style in the 60s. It was the only dress in the closet. Why had she kept it? What memories had it held for her? What stories did it hold? What stories could I make up about it?

Most were things we could not wear (too old, too stained, too big) or would not wear (too ugly). We made big piles of clothes that were to be given away. But we rummaged and sorted and we each found a few things to take away, to inherit and maybe to wear, maybe to fold away into our own drawer or hang in our own closet.  I kept waiting to come upon that one garment that would speak to me about my mother’s life.

I settled on an old black cardigan with white flowers embroidered at the neckline. It was worn and pilled and had lost its shape. But I wanted it. I was sure of it. I have never had any writing superstitions or charms. But I decided I would invent one for myself. I would make this sweater my writing sweater. It would embrace me as I wrote. I would button it up in the winter and roll up its sleeves in summer.

For these moments, my mother and I would be close.

sweater

It was my choice to spend Christmas alone.

Early Christmas morning my husband flew to L.A. to spend the holiday with our older daughter Natalie. She had just returned from a trip to the Philippines and getting her jetlagged self onto another plane to come to Seattle was out of the question. I’m heading to L.A. on January 2 on my way to a book event in San Diego. It didn’t make sense for me to make two trips to Southern California so close together. As for our younger daughter Ana, she’s in another hemisphere altogether, traveling in Colombia after having spent six months in El Salvador. She popped up on Instagram on Christmas Eve. It’s how we know her location: social media and my texts asking, where are you now? (Lima, Peru is the answer to that question as of today.)

Christmas by myself would be fine, I told myself. And it was. The streets were quiet when I went for a walk that morning, with hardly a car in sight. Fog shrouded the lake so even the walkers partridge2and runners on the path seemed spectral and hushed. For lunch, I ate goodies I’d picked up at the co-op the day before, including a slice of pumpkin pie. It did feel weird to eat my holiday meal with the just the cat at my side. I turned on the TV and we watched a Christmas episode of The Partridge Family. I admit to getting a little teary-eyed when the family lip-synched “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to a man who was spending Christmas alone. The cat was unmoved.

I set out extra bowls of water and kibbles for the cat, packed up my laptop and a change of clothes, and took a bus downtown. Let your heart be light, I hummed. My bus was minus the weekday work crowd so it was just the down-and-outers on the ride. Nearly all the seats were filled.

I checked into a boutique hotel where the mini-room I had reserved was perfect for a mini-writing retreat. I’d barely settled in at my laptop, when I decided to go see a movie. The writing retreat would suffer a slight delay. But movies are stories and stories feed other stories and I wanted inspiration. Even if I had to sit through endless previews, the rustling of popcorn bags, and the inevitable talker because there’s always a talker two seats away.

I saw Fences. Denzel Washington was faultless in his portrayal of a flawed and complex man whose dreams have been thwarted by the fact of his blackness. He took up most of the screen time, but when she was on screen, Viola Davis matched him. I later read that though August Wilson wrote the screenplay in 2005, he wouldn’t allow the movie to be made unless it was directed by a black artist. Good for him. Good for Denzel for getting it done.

Later my husband and I talked on the phone, he from his hotel room in Hollywood and mepizza from my Seattle boutique hotel whose restaurant was closed for Christmas. I was starving since more than six hours had passed since my holiday lunch of co-op treats. The front desk had recommended a nearby pizza place so I was waiting on the veggie pizza I’d ordered for my Christmas dinner. I was cranky because I was hungry, so after my husband told me about his mishap in the airplane bathroom, we hung up.

I ate my pizza in front of the TV, watching The Parent Trap and I kept thinking how sad it was that Natasha Richardson had died and how since then Liam Neeson had been making those screaming, bloody action movies as if that was the way he could express his grief, and also there was pre-adolescent Lindsay Lohan and I felt sad and nostalgic for innocence and cuteness.

I started to miss the cat.

My sister called from San Diego. She started passing the phone around so I could speak to my other sibs who had gathered for Christmas, but my phone ran out of minutes on the second sister.

So I wrote a little bit, read a little bit, listened to blues on the radio.

Christmas alone wasn’t so bad.

One evening the week before Thanksgiving, my husband and I were sprawled in our opposite corners of the couch, watching the evening news.

“Next week isn’t Thanksgiving, is it?” he asked.

“Nah,” I said.

But it was. And we had no plans.

He decided to try to book a table at a restaurant, but the only available option was if we wanted to have dinner at 2:30 in the afternoon. We didn’t.

And that was fine. Thanksgiving came too soon and we had no time or energy for it. We were drained from the last days of the presidential campaign, the election results, and the aftermath. Anyway, my husband asked, “Why do we even celebrate Thanksgiving? I mean, you know, genocide?”

In the midst of the election-related turmoil, my story collection Hola and Goodbye was released by Carolina Wren Press. It came out November 1, a week before Election Day. On November 2, I boarded a plane for Raleigh, North Carolina, courtesy of my publisher who had booked me for several events. I left my solidly blue state for a swing state whose Republican governor signed HB2 into law, banning local governments from passing anti-discrimination ordinances and requiring transgender people to use the public restrooms of their biological sex.

Everyone I met apologized for the politics of their state. Of course, these were book people, people for whom stories informed their worldview, expanded their experience, deepened meredith-college-studentstheir empathy. My story collection, which deals with an immigrant generation and subsequent native-born ones, was warmly embraced at the bookstore where I read, the conference where I sat on a panel, and by a group of Latina students at a women’s college.

At my hotel, I greeted the mostly Latino housekeeping staff in the hall each morning, and chatted with the Haitian, Russian, and Somali servers at breakfast. On my last day, Election Day, the African-American desk clerk grimly informed me that the hotel would be the site of the Republican Party election night gathering. As I sat in the lobby that afternoon waiting for my shuttle to the airport, I watched the preparations for the big night, which I was certain would be a disaster for the GOP. Because after all, how could a lying racist, sexist, tax-dodging, unscrupulous businessman with no knowledge or experience of civics or civility win the presidency?

As my Iraqi shuttle driver and I discussed the election and our hopes and fears, I imagined the hotel staff of immigrants and refugees, serving trays of hors d’oeuvres, refilling glasses, wiping up spills, collecting empty plates and stacking them in dishwashers – in other words, catering to and cleaning up after the people voting against their interests and livelihoods, and for a man whose campaign repeatedly insulted them.

I got my own brown body back to my blue state, but not before I checked early election returns while still in the air, which made the turbulence juddering the plane pale compared to the agitation in my ribcage. By the time I landed and got a cab, things were dire. My cab driver (an immigrant and a Muslim) and I were silent as we listened to NPR. When I got home, my husband and I could only exchange somber looks before going to bed.

My Seattle book launch at Elliott Bay Book Company was four days later. My energy was low, the base of my neck ached, and I had a sore throat, but it was my party, scheduled months in advance, and my sisters, brothers and cousins were coming from California, not to mention, as it turned out, one of my daughters and some high school classmates making surprise appearances.

I messaged Jacque Larrainzar whose band Secuencia Acústica was providing the music for jacque-and-drumthe reading. We had planned a traditional Mexican song, a couple of boleros and some salsa tunes. Please add a song of protest and unity, I said.

So she opened with El Pueblo Unido (Jamás Será Vencido), The people united will never be defeated.

Her powerful voice and the drumbeat lifted me and I hope it did others. I read three short excerpts from my story collection – one about an immigrant from Mexico whose slow acquisition of English isolates her even in her own home, another about a young girl whose dreams of starring in an MGM musical are dashed when she is told that Mexicans don’t become stars in Hollywood; and a third about a young woman who having never learned to speak Spanish, the language of her immigrant grandmother, goes to Mexico to search for a lost self. Each excerpt was followed by a song from Secuencia Acústica, including the popular bolero Sabor a Mi.

I felt immense good will, support, and community in that space where so many stories have been shared. Here’s a reviewer of Elliott Bay Books on Yelp (with typos removed) whose words captured my hopes for the evening:

Attended Donna Miscolta’s Hola and Goodbye: Una Familia in Stories book reading.  With a divided nation, Donna’s heartfelt reading about the 3 generations of this family with roots in Mexico and California, beautifully blended with Latin music of unity was well timed.

audience-copy

The following weekend was filled with other book-related events so when Thanksgiving Day arrived and we had no dinner to go to or to cook, we gladly spent a quiet day biking, walking, reading, listening to music, and writing. We did venture out once in the car on that dreary rainy day and ended up at Whole Foods where I had a plateful of mashed potatoes, turkey and gravy, and Brussel sprouts. So a Thanksgiving meal after all, to celebrate not genocide but the things I’m thankful for – family, friends, a city and county whose leaders have pledged to retain its policies that protect immigrants, and a vibrant writing community.

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Photo by Allison Green

The month ends with beauty, joy, and hope. I was elated to be among the two dozen writers invited on Sherman Alexie’s Indies First Authors on a Bus to celebrate independent bookstores on Saturday, November 26. The bus traveled to three bookstores – Third Place Books in Seward Park, University Book Store, and Elliott Bay Book Company. Each place was festive with booksellers, writers, and readers. Each writer recommended a book to readers. Mine was Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, and the In-Between by Sayantani Dasgupta.

One of the striking things about this book is not just what a good storyteller Dasgupta is, but how well she listens to the stories of others to make discoveries about the world and about herself. This is, after all, the reason for stories.

Which is why I often reference this statement by the incomparable Sherman Alexie: “I firmly believe in the power of stories to change the world, and I firmly believe in the power of one story to change one life at a time.”

Let’s all keep reading.

Congratulations to Patty Enrado, winner of Week 3 of the #UnaFamiliaInPhotos Twitter
contest!  Her photo of her, her father, her sister, her aunties, uncles, and manongs is captioned “Family get-togethers always involve pig roasting.” It’s a photo that conveys family ties, tradition, and celebration.  patty

The runner-up is Michelle Peñaloza who submitted a photo of her father, handsome and youthful, sitting on a bench with a congenial group of family or friends.

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Each will receive an Hola and Goodbye keepsake.

The names of the five winners and runners-up were written on slips of paper and tossed on the carpet in the foyer near the Carolina Wren Press table at the North Carolina Writers’ Network Conference in the Crabtree Marriott in Raleigh. The slip of paper landing nearest a designated line was declared the winner. It also happened to be the only slip of paper that didn’t land flat on the floor, but instead stood upright – a sign we took as an omen. Witnessing this event were Robin Miura, director of Carolina Wren Press, and Tammie Ward Rice, also with the press.

And the winner of a copy of HOLA AND GOODBYE is Michelle Peñaloza!

Thanks to everyone who entered and to those who have supported the book so far with your tweets, likes, and, most of all, your purchase of the book.