Jane Hodges picked me up at 1:30 last Thursday afternoon at my North Seattle apartment to drive me to Mineral, a small community in the foothills of Mount Rainier.

In its Wikipedia entry, Mineral’s amenities are listed as “a post office, two churches, one general store, one tavern, a log lodge (in the National Register of Historic Places), a resort Vacancywith fishing docks and boat/pontoon rentals and two bed and breakfast facilities.” (The log lodge, built in 1906, was the place where I would stay overnight.)

Not included in the Wikipedia entry is the uniquely homey and benignly haunted Mineral School Arts Residency, founded and directed by Seattle writer Jane Hodges. Last summer I was a resident at Mineral School, where I put the finishing touches on my Angie Rubio manuscript and in the ensuing months sent it out to a few places. In May, I accepted an offer of publication from Jaded Ibis Press, whose recent releases include Kingdom of Women by Rosalie Morales Kearns (interviewed here by Rigoberto Gonzalez) and As a River by Sion Dayson whose newly published novel has made it to several “best” and “pick” lists.

As we traveled from the traffic-laden cityscape to the two-lane rural roads, Jane and I talked books. Jane not only reads a lot, she has great recall of what she reads. Her brain is a library.

Sometime after 3:30, after making the turn off Route 7 at Elbe where a Trump 2020 sign Murraylooms big and scary, Jane dropped me off at Mineral Lake Lodge, where Carolyn, a former physician and now lodge proprietor, and Murray the cat greeted me. I was the only guest in the eight-room lodge and was given my choice of themed room. I nearly opted for the Moose Country Room on the top floor because it was the only room with a desk, but realized that if I chose the Birdhouse View Room on the second floor I would have easy access to the sunroom with its dramatic view of Mineral Lake. Teddy Roosevelt is purported to have slept in the sunroom.

After an hour or so in the sunroom alternating reading a book, gaping at the view, and conjuring the spirit of Roosevelt, I walked the narrow country road to Mineral School to join the current residents Samantha Lee, Elise Morris, Dayna Patterson, and Pamela K. Santos for a 6:00 dinner of salmon cakes, broccoli, and black bean salad prepared by chef Val. It was the week of the parent artist residency and I’d been invited to read and also talk a little about how I wrote during my active parenting years.

Birdhouse RoomAfter the 7:30 reading, plum cake dessert, and conversation, I went back to the lodge around 9. I sat in my Birdhouse View Room bed and did the NYT crossword online. Then in preparation for my trip to Ecuador in a few weeks I did some Español en Uso exercises before settling in with a book. It was lights out on the birdhouses sometime after 11.

The next morning, I walked to Mineral School to have breakfast with the residents, after which visual artist and photographer Elise took a few portrait photos of me as she had done with the residents. She explained how to turtle my neck to meet rather than shy away the camera. I also took a selfie with the exuberant Pamela Santos. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter and you might find it there.

Back at the lodge, I chatted briefly with lodge owner Carolyn and learned how a retired Carolynphysician and quilt maker ended up in Mineral as a bed and breakfast lodge owner. Then I had a couple of hours in the sunroom to write and be boggled anew by the view before my time in Mineral was up.

I packed up and walked back to Mineral School where Jane had a yummy sack lunch waiting for me. At noon, Rebecca Peterson, Mineral School working artist, drove me along the scenic backroads of Lewis County to Centralia where I caught the 1:30 Amtrak Cascades back to Seattle.

It was a perfect little overnight adventure that offered a little bit of many of the things I love – scenery- rich drives, walks, and train ride; meeting and hanging out with writers and artists; a stay in a historic lodge; and tasty, well-prepared food. Interspersed in all of it were the always essential moments of solitude to read or write. Thank you, Mineral School, for a lovely 24 hours.

Before I ever needed an author photo, I thought that if the day came that circumstances 1934922_270701555362_5134608_ndemanded one, I would use the drawing my daughter did of me when she was in third grade. The likeness was undeniable, the colors vivid, and the vibe cool. Those blue glasses were seriously daring, and not all reflective of my tendency toward the conventional. She made me look fun and fashionable. Using this drawing would eliminate the need to get in front of a camera and relive the nightmares of school picture days.

But for my first book, which came out in 2011, I figured the crayon drawing probably wasn’t going to suffice. On the recommendation of a friend, I hired Meryl Schenker. She’s nice and funny and knows her stuff. And she’s patient with people whose picture day memories produce self-conscious, counterfeit smiles.

11/20/2010-Donna Miscolta. Photo by Meryl Schenker, Seattle, Wash.I really liked the photo that resulted from that shoot in Meryl’s living room. I was younger then, my skin more taut, the gray in my hair barely noticeable. I still haven’t updated it on my Twitter profile, though that’s been due more to laziness than any attempt to deliberately mislead the world about what I look like now.

It was during this shoot, that I discovered my good side. Almost everything taken from my left side I liked or, at least, not hated. Everything taking from my right side I definitely hated. One of my sisters has the same good side. When taking family photos, we jockey for position.

When my second book was about to come out five years later in 2016, I needed an updated author photo, so I hired Meryl again. We did the shoot in her studio this time. Again, she was patient with my lack of imagination in front of a Author Donna Miscolta, Seattlecamera, coaxing me to move this way and that. I came away with several photos I liked, all of my good side but shot at different angles for at least the suggestion of variety. These, like my previous author photo, featured me in dark clothing against dark backgrounds, which was more happenstance than strategic. An unintentional outcome was the obscuring of the ever increasing graying of my hair.

Now I have another book coming in 2020. (Thank you, Jaded Ibis Press.) I contacted Meryl again. She suggested we do outdoor shots this time, and I proposed the rooftop of my apartment building, though I was concerned about getting squinty-eyed in the sunlight. I suppose I should’ve also given a thought to what to wear.

When Meryl came over, I still had on the dark pink tank top I’d worn to the gym that morning.

Meryl eyed me. “Is that what you’re going to wear for the photo?”

I assured her it was not. I showed her my minimalist closet and picked out a few possibilities.

Meryl said that since the last two author photos had been dark, she wanted to try something more colorful.

I wear mostly cool and neutral colors, I told her. “Except for this,” I said, pointing to the pink tank top I had on.

“It’s dirty,” Meryl said.

Right. I’d been wearing it for a few days. In my retirement, I see very little need to change my clothes during the week.

“You, know,” she said, “most people preparing for a photo shoot go clothes shopping.”

“Yeah. I hate shopping,” I said.

Then I remembered the blue sleeveless dress I had picked up at Target a few months ago. I was killing time, roaming the aisles, while my younger daughter, home for a month from her life in Ecuador, was shopping for supplies. I showed the dress to Meryl.

“The problem,” I said, “is that it’s blue and I have blue glasses now.” After decades of brown or black eyeglass frames, I had recently, in a mutiny against my characteristic restraint, opted for colorful look-at-me frames.

“Not a problem,” Meryl said.

Okay, I shrugged.

“Now, what do you want to convey in the photo? How do you want to be seen?”

“Um, friendly?”


“And, um, smart?”

“Hmm. That’s a little harder.”

“Okay, just friendly then.”

I wondered if my asking to convey “smart” in the photo was akin to the composer Eric Satie noting that his compositions should be played “peacefully” or “grandiosely” or “learnedly” (nifty information from Caitlin Horrocks’s excellent debut novel The Vexations).

I still was not an ideal subject, ever self-conscious about how to stand or where to look or how much to smile. While the results showed plenty of forced smiles, there were enough unforced ones to choose from the array of my blue-themed photos.

I think I do look friendly. I might still be a little squinty-eyed, but I like the outdoor light on my now visibly graying hair. And my blue glasses are exactly like the ones my prescient, third-grade daughter drew on me all those years ago.


For years now, I’ve been going to the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference at Centrum. It’s a ferry ride and a scenic drive 60 miles from Seattle. Located on a peninsula on a larger peninsula, the surroundings are beautiful, the faculty stellar, and the participants fun to be around. Every year, I meet remarkable people. Though I’d met Bryan Fry, editor-in-chief of Blood Orange Review, a few years ago enroute to AWP, it was his first time at PTWC. On the first night of the conference, he introduced me to CMarie (Cindy) Fuhrman, co-editor with Dean Rader of the newly published anthology Native Voices: Indigenous American Poetry, Craft and Conversations. Good friends, Bryan and Cindy traveled together from Idaho to the conference. I had a chance to sit down with them to ask questions about their respective publications, which led to conversations about race, power, diversity, community, and, of course, art.

If you could use only one word or phrase to describe the reason for your publications’ existence, what would it be?

CMF: Unheard voices.
BF: I think that’s it. I mean, that’s what it is.

What prepared you to take on the task of your publications?

CMF: I felt called to do it because there was a gap. It had been 30 years since we’d had an41ZVnx3MMLL anthology of Native American poetry. And it had been never since Native people had been asked about craft. I think what prepared me is I’ve always thought in terms of bridges. The work I did at the University of Idaho for Native students was creating a bridge between education and Native communities. Stories create those bridges that takes us from one place to another. But what I saw, and I don’t know that it prepared me as much as inspired me to do the anthology, was that there was a hole that really needed to be filled at a time when voices that were getting so much of the spotlight were doing nothing to help people who have historically been ignored.

Also, as a student getting syllabi that had no Native people in them, how was I supposed to be a Native writer when I had only one or two people to look up to, and one had recently been accused of some really awful things against women. Others are fantastic, and I’m thinking of Louise Erdrich and M. Scott Momaday and James Welch. But there weren’t any new voices getting out there. There wasn’t any new material being seen. And there wasn’t anyone in my age group that I could look up to and say, I could be her or I could write like her or I could write to her, meaning we could be on the same level together.

I saw my Native students not having those new voices and materials, trying to find themselves within voices that weren’t theirs within a context they couldn’t relate to. For a long time, Native poets and writers have been treated in a mystical, spiritual way when they are just as much genius at craft as any other poet and writer crafting art. They need to be seen as artists first. They belong with any of the artists we’ve revered in this place now called the United States.

I think my whole life has prepared me for this kind of work. Bryan and I got to know each other because we’re both really into collaboration, creating relationships, and bringing things together, and that was part of the initial attraction in our friendship. One of the things he first said to me was “You’re a collaborator. I love that!”

BF: I’d also say about Cindy is her anthology, with its craft essays and what she’s trying to do, showed me something that I feel is really important for curators. As someone who has been called a curator, I think about that word and about curation practices in America, not just in literature and writing, but historically what we choose to memorialize. Anybody who’s in a position to be a curator has to understand that long history of exclusion and how it lends itself to systematic structures keeping people out. I immediately respected Cindy because her anthology and her own writing resists those structures. But also, she’s my sister. We went to the same program at the University of Idaho. We were taught by teachers who were taught by teachers who were taught by teachers in the Pacific Northwest, so we carry something with us that is a kind of DNA.

CMF: Literary DNA.

BF: As soon as we met, we were like…we knew each other. Yeah, we have the same DNA. To answer your question about what prepared me for this project, I think it was working with students. A lot of communities have taught me how to not fuck up. My students are the people who mean the most to me and I feel honored to be able to work with them. They come from all different backgrounds, and I have the privilege to walk in the Screenshot 2019-07-25 22.16.32classroom and have all of the authority, all the answers, and I really try to break that down as quickly as I can. They educate me. And as they’re educating me, I know that they don’t see themselves standing in front of the classroom. So, I searched for writing examples from non-white writers, but I wasn’t finding a lot beyond the heavy-hitters, and I wasn’t seeing a variety in subject matter. And I’m like, “I have a journal. How do I get this right?” Well, maybe if I do the same thing with writers that I do with students. I can go out, find writers, talk to them, and let them know what I’m trying to do on a personal level. And good writers know other good writers.

CMF: The beautiful thing is that he’s publishing these voices talking about not just what the general public hopes to hear them talk about, which holds us in a place that perpetuates a kind of stereotype, showing people as one way instead of two-sided. But what Blood Orange Review does is give permission to writers to write about all of their life, all of their personal experiences. It doesn’t pigeonhole them to one topic. When they can get hold of Blood Orange Review and see that there are writers writing about something that has nothing to do with race, they have that permission to just write their life, which might just be about finding a dog. So, I think it’s important what Bryan said about bringing those stories out too, and then we all see these people as well-rounded, whole individuals instead of one-sided.

BF: I understand that mine is a power position. I think one of the things I do is try to strip down as much of that power as I can and say, “We’re all trying to do cool shit. Let’s do it together,” without trying to minimize their experiences. There are so many questions about how to get published and how those decisions get made. And those doors are hard to knock down. There are writers that send stuff to us through certain organizations that I care deeply about, and if we don’t accept their work, I’ll write a personal note to give them feedback. Those are people that I become friends with for life. It’s about understanding how much is given to you in being allowed to select from these thousands of submissions. Deciding which ones you’re going to publish is a huge job. What about all the people that are getting rejected? I care about all those other people. Every time they win an award, I hype them up on Twitter or Facebook. And I’m a fan for life.

CMF: I love a story that Bryan related to me recently. He got a submission from a well-known Pacific Northwest writer and chose not to publish it so they could have space for someone who wasn’t as well known. And that was fantastic – to be able to say, we love your writing, but you’re doing great, and we want to give the space to someone who needs it. It could have brought a lot of attention to the journal to have that particular writer in it, but the journal chose instead to put someone in who is not well known, which is a beautiful gesture.

BF: We certainly like to publish bigger names, but in this case the work wasn’t in conversation with the other submissions we had accepted. You have to honor your submissions. If a larger name fits and magnifies the collective body of work, we’ll go with it. But in this particular case, we made a tough decision—the right decision—and gently passed on it.

CMF: Some people think that the mission of a journal of any kind is to become the most popular journal in the area and get the highest readership based on whatever names we can put in it that are going to draw the most attention. I don’t see Bryan, at the helm of Blood Orange Review, trying to do that. I think Bryan’s heart is also felt by the people that work with him. But sometimes that goes against what we think of as American. We should be like, gosh, if you have 12 to 14 writers that you can publish in an issue, and you get all 12 to 14 that are hard-hitting writers, then everybody’s going to want to buy that issue. But those people have already had their say.

What are some of the obstacles you see in getting not just a readership but a recognition of the significance of your publications?

CMF: People say that if it’s Native poetry and they’re not Native, why should they read it? They’re, like, “How will I ever relate to Native poetry? I’m not Native American.” A lot of the point of Native Voices, particularly in the craft essays, is to show how human we all are, that we’re sharing a human experience that is vastly different for some people, that the human experience itself is worthwhile to explore. I think that the biggest obstacle is showing people that poetry is poetry. Art is art. We can look at it on that level, instead of trying to just stick it in a genre and say, “Well, I’m not Native American, so why would I care?” I think the craft essays in the book are doing a lot to level the playing field. People can say, “Oh, it has craft. Well, I’m also a poet, so surely this will help me.”

BF: It’s hard to keep track of audiences. We know our followers on Facebook and Twitter, and, of course, we read hundreds of bios on Submittable. But we’re about community, and we want the communities and organizations we network with to trust our journal. One interesting thing about audience is we still get a lot of work from white writers that is not in any way engaging socially or politically. And that’s an interesting thing to me. They’re not reading our journal, or they don’t care about what it is we’re doing. The space we’re creating isn’t just for non-white people. There’s a voice for everybody there. And we try to create a community of editors who are helping us make those selections and decisions. I’m the editor-in-chief, but I have a whole family of people that help me take care of this baby.

How does spending time putting together such publications affect your own work? Both in terms of available time and the content and style of your work.

CMF: I was a full-time grad student while I did this anthology, and I worked full-time at the university. Reading through submissions and craft essays, doing the research, and writing the introductions to the poets and their work truly helped the work that I was doing for my own thesis. Having all those voices with me and learning what I did from the craft essays definitely showed up in the writing I was doing. I think it also deepened the sense of the importance of the kind of work that had to be done. And working with my students always informs my writing. It did make for some long nights. But maybe that time crunch in grad school is a good thing. You had only so much time and had to use it really wisely.

BF: I’m not just doing the work on the journal. I’m also doing things on campus and with students outside of English classes. But I separate those things from my writing because what I do as an editor feeds my soul. I like to write, but when I see someone else in the spotlight, that makes me happy inside. I always have a hard time putting enough time in my writing. 67429281_434636307386133_5062337433350176768_nI’ve been publishing on average one to two essays a year. My goal has never been to have a book. People have asked, “What about a chapbook of essays?” Right now, it’s not my thing. I found something that I love. But it does affect my writing. I have to create a separate space for that to happen and then protect it.

There’s been a lot of talk about curating practices and the problems with them. And I think it’s really important to plug into that, to educate yourself, and listen to what people are saying. There’re a lot of people that are calling out white editors, but I never feel like they’re attacking me personally. If you feel that way, you got to check yourself. Because that’s where the humility comes in. It’s great to raise other people up. And the love that you get back? All of a sudden that work is not work.

CMF: Yeah, I think it’s important to clarify that, and Bryan and I’ve had this conversation, so I’m not trying to speak for him. When we say white, that doesn’t mean necessarily a skin color. So much is a certain mindset. It’s just a way of thinking. We see so much of it right now in our current administration – not listening to these other voices. White is not necessarily a skin color so much as a way of thinking that is colonial, that is outdated, outmoded, and that has forever kept other voices from being heard. And there are non-white people that can be accused of this as well.

So, what’s a good word for that – rather than white and non-white?

CMF: Perhaps, the people that are stuck in their colonial myth, regardless of their skin color – this idea of colonization, of needing to have power and using that power only to perpetuate themselves, only to gain for themselves or for a small number of people – is what I think of when I think of white. And I don’t want to say the powerful and the non-powerful. That’s not it, either. Maybe we’re pointing at something that yet doesn’t have a word. And we’ll find that together.

It’s pretty complex, but I think that saying they’re white helps us understand that that’s been a problem. People who could pass as a white person have always gotten a certain amount of privilege over others, even if they’re in the same socio-economic class. So, it is tricky. And I certainly don’t want to leave out people who have been fantastic allies who don’t see themselves as part of that colonial power structure. But I think it’s just an easy way to talk about the two groups – the ones in power and the ones not having that same power, that same voice.

BF: Would you say that all of us writers here (at this conference) have privilege.?Maybe some of us within this group have privilege over others, but we were all able to get here somehow, right? So, we recognize that privilege actually can go beyond even skin color. Right?

CMF: But how we came by that privilege might be completely different. We see that even though we’ve been asked to come, which looks really good for a particular group (look, diversity!), we’re still feeling the lack of the same privileges as someone who’s done nothing different and is enjoying what we are not. It’s great to promote diversity, but it can’t be just like buying a lawn ornament. It has to go further, like inviting someone into your house.

BF: One of the problems, and I don’t know if it’s similar to what happens here, is that the university I work for does a really good job of getting people here from across the United States and beyond. We have Saudi students and students from China. We have Black students. We have DACA students. I think the university wants to promote diversity. But they never really thought about creating space for these students. They didn’t do that second part. So the students don’t feel valued. I wonder if something similar is happening here, where people are coming here, but maybe they don’t feel valued. I think that second part is something that people always have to do, because if you don’t, then you’re just using people.

What does coming to a place like this conference do for you as a writer, teacher, and human being?

CMF: I was invited here as a fellow before, which was fantastic. I’m very fortunate that Debra Gwartney and I have developed a relationship. She allowed me to come in her IMG_20190719_203710 croppedclassroom and assist her during the week. The stories that these women are trying to tell are so important. Being in that room has been very powerful. And anytime – and Brian and I have talked a little bit about this previously – that I can infiltrate a system, I open it up for others. This might sound awful, and please forgive me if it does, but if I can get a foot into Centrum, then maybe I can prop it open for other Native writers that would like to come here. If I can meet people like Debra, who might write a letter of recommendation for two or three Native writers at some conference, that’s fantastic. I feel like that does so much for me on so many levels as an educator and as a human being. Like Bryan says, it feeds my soul. For Native people, it’s reciprocation. I’ve been given this; I want to give it to somebody else. Or, if I’ve ever I’m lucky enough to be invited as a teacher, other Native students might see that and believe it’s possible for them, too.

I’m excited that George (the incoming program director) really wants to work with us to make sure we bring more diversity or equity to Centrum. Certainly, every time I’m given an inch, I take a mile. If I can get into places where we have not traditionally been, I’m going to find a way to bring other underrepresented people. And I’m huge on relationships, just like Bryan is. I love meeting new people here. I’ve met so many new and great friends. And Sam (Ligon) has been a big advocate for me and my work. And Kate (Lebo) made me a fantastic supper. In some ways, we’re also following our literary parents, Bob (Wrigley) and Kim (Barnes), who have been coming here, and my literary sister Sayantani Dasgupta, who was a little bit ahead of me (at UI).

BF: When I got a message asking if I wanted to be a resident at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, followed by an invitation to have two of my students come on full scholarship, I knew what I would’ve said if I hadn’t had that second thing offered. That’s what really got me excited about being here – those two students. One of them, Jem, sent me a message that said, “I want whatever this is. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

And I am thinking about people we’ve published – Grace Prasad, who’s from Taiwan, and Khalypso, a transgender poet we published a couple of years ago, my good friend Desiree Cooper, and people I connected with through VONA – I’m thinking how do we get them here? So those are the things that I think about when I’m here – the community that’s being created and who’s being left out.

CMF: Right? And my god, it’s beautiful. It’s just lovely to be here among so many like-minded people. So that brings me joy in my heart that there are good people out there that are willing to listen. I’ve been to other conferences that are very ego driven. Here they do a good job, but I think that there can be more diversity.

You road-tripped together to this conference. What was that like?

BF: We love music. So, we started off immediately with music. Cindy is deeply romantic.67313671_480427012734089_5440844745003761664_n
And she does this thing where she closes her eyes, and I don’t know if she puts her hand up to her heart, but I see it in my memory. And she tells me the words that are about to come. She feels it deeply. I’m just dancing.

CMF: When there’s a really good song on, Bryan’s turning it up and he keeps talking over it, and he’s saying “Oh, listen, listen, listen.” He’s got a lot of energy, and I’m more laid back. And when I’m closing my eyes, I’m trying to sleep.

But it was fun. We’d been looking forward to this mostly as a chance to talk. It was a long drive, but it went by really fast. And we were able to get out some ideas for some collaborations we can do in the future.

What’s the next big thing for each of you?

CMF: I’ve been really depressed with the climate crisis that is happening. And I’m really interested in language – particularly sleeping languages of indigenous people that haven’t quite woken up or languages that are just waking up – and how important they are to the environment and how much Native people already are scientists and knew so much about the land. There are just not a lot of Native people writing about the environment, yet we know so much – how it’s affecting tribes who are getting displaced and becoming environmental refugees. So I contacted Jeffrey Levine, who’s the publisher at Tupelo, and Pam Uschuk and Bill Root at Cutthroat, A Journal of the Arts, and other people and said, “Listen, we need to bring together some writers who are writing about the environment like Robin Wall Kimmerer and Linda Hogan and others that I know must be out there.” They were all very interested, and immediately Pam said they would dedicate an issue of Cutthroat to this, which we will start working on that this autumn.

I’m also working on a publication on the theme seen/unseen about people who are in places that are public but are never seen. And I’m the Translations editor for Broadsided Press. I love what they’re doing with language, doing a translation issue every year. We’re going to use pieces this year from a Nigerian poet, a Chamorro poet, and an Alaska Native poet, all writing in their Native languages. It brings to light that English is not the only language for poetry. Working with Liz Bradfield and Alexandra Teague on this project has been amazing.

I’m finishing up my own manuscript of nonfiction essays and I’m still poetry editor for Transmotion. It’s a journal that traditionally has had reviews of Native literature. But those reviews weren’t always by other Native people. So, James Mackay and David Stirrup were kind enough to get in touch with me and ask if I would find Native writers to start talking about each other’s work. In the last issue, everybody was so thrilled to have some of their peers or colleagues review their book. Meg Noodin reviewed Linda Rodriguez’s book, and Linda’s, like, finally someone gets me. And academics can refer to these Native people talking about other Native people’s work. How cool.

Wow, that’s a lot of work you’re doing!

CMF: It’s all good stuff. It talks to each other. It’s a lot, but we’re here for such a short time.

BF: At Blood Orange Review, we’re working on the judging for our inaugural contest. The judges are Jericho Brown for poetry, Aisha Sabatini Sloan for nonfiction, and Aimee Phan for fiction. And we’re redesigning the website, which is always nerve-wracking. We get a prototype in a couple of weeks. We have a big-name poet in the spring who also does art for social change. We’re trying to work it out for her to come to campus to work with our students on an art-for-social-change contest right before a major MLK event. And we want to use swatches of the art for social change work that our undergraduates are creating, and pull that into the journal. We’re really excited about using student art next to writers’ work, finding more ways to have community and just playing with what an online journal can do, how it can have a conversation with people in different ways.

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:


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.