Friday, April 29, 2011

Tales from Middle School-Part three

I heard the door slam, and my sister's voice.
 “Anybody home? Alli, where’re you?”   
“I’m showering” I yelled back, and turned the shower on.

When I got down to the living room, she was watching television.   
“Have you been on the phone all night?” She bristled at me and got up to look for food to prepare. "Do you want a  peanut butter sand?" She asked.
I hated that peanut butter  needed refrigeration, and hours of mixing to become pliable. I started to say something about that when she started with her complaints.
“I got a busy signal all night. Who did you talk to all that time?” She asked.
“I pulled the phone off the hook.” I said moving to  the kitchen to find a banana or something.
 “How did you get that?” She pointed at my forehead.
“It's Nothing! ”
“Does Mom know?”
“She wasn’t home when I got back.  Dad went looking for her.”
“Dad? Why did he come home?”
“Don’t know. But I would still be out on the porch if he hadn't come home tonight."
The day was a blur: the boy on the bus, on the trail, on the phone.   
“Where did you go this afternoon?” She had made two sandwiches and passed me one.
 I gave Wilson fresh water and a piece of my sandwich.
“I had a long day and I’m bushed.” I said, too tired to be interrogated. I gave the rest of the  sandwich to Wilson and “I am not feeling well” I said, suddenly tired and worried about what punishment I was going to get when Mom and Dad returned. I didn't want to face them.

The house felt unusually quiet.  I heard my sister  on the phone, for a while. Then, cars in the driveway, and Mom and Dad talking downstairs.
Within minutes, Mom was in my room.
“Alli, are you asleep? Where did you go this afternoon?”    
“I’m not feeling well.” I mumbled.
Dad peeked in, eating a yogurt.
I started, “I tried to get away…” Mother interrupted when she turned the light by my bed and saw my bruises.
“What happened? You’re all banged up.”  
I eyed Dad’s yogurt.
“Did you eat?” He said, offering me his food.  
“I can’t eat a thing.” I said, lying. If I put my arms out of the covers, Mom would see even more bruises.
Noises from the kitchen startled me.
“Someone’s in the house!” I yelled and jumped up.
“It’s Wilson. Did anybody feed him tonight?” Dad said, and went down before anybody answered. 
Mother had moved to the closet, checking the clothes in the hamper.
I could tell her about the phone calls and the rush to Jen’s house trying to get a ride to rehearsal.  I could  tell her that I let Wilson wander without a leash and I wasted a lot of time getting him back on the leash.   I could tell her about crawling in the bushes to find an open window. 

All I said was,” I’m sorry, Mom.  I shouldn’t have gone so long, ” and began to weep, slowly and quietly.

By then Dad had returned. “Alli has had a long day.  We’ll talk in the morning. Let’s go." He took Mom's arm and was going out, "  Alli, get a good night’s sleep.  See you in the morning” he said, turning the lights off.

They must have talked for hours down in the kitchen.

The next morning, mother came to wake me for school.
Instead of hurry up, you're late, the phrases she used, she said, “Alli.  You are going to stay home today.”
“I can’t.  I can’t be late!”
“There was a gang bust, and when I told the sheriff about this cholo boy we gave a ride to, he said he knew him.  He got a posse up to the foothills to look for you right away after I called home to see if you got back, and after a couple of calls, I called your Dad to see if he heard from you. The sheriff and I went looking for you at about six or so.  I figured you'd be home by then.  He was there, wasn’t he? We're going to talk to the sheriff first thing.”
“I have nothing to tell the sheriff.”
“Yes, you do. Alli, how did you get all those injuries?
“I’m really o.k., Mom.”
“Something happened!”  She said with a voice that meant don’t disagree with me.

(to be continued...)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The poetry of Robert Cohen

Robert Cohen was at the Bandon Writers when I first met him.  He was quiet, reticent about critizing anyone. When he shared his poems, we became quiet too. Hard to explain how he touched us all.  He died last July, unexpectedly. 
This morning, as I was cleaning, I found one of his books,Talking Back to the Moon.
Traprock Books, Eugene, Or., 2005

After Celebrating My 49th Birthday

Say what you will to still the fear-
that I appear to be ten years younger-
this is the age that Father reached
before he couldn't reach farther.

He must have heard similar words-
I never saw him livelier
than before his heart broke of not enough
and of trying to make not enough into more.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


It, an idea, starts out like an old bathroom sink. Everything is functioning, your mind says, but it is ugly, it is depressing, it needs oomph! Your mind grabs that thought as a sign of hope!

Yes, you ruminate, I could replace the sink and the counter for a few dollars.
If I left all other things in place, and get a new free standing sink, I could afford to paint and put some sparkle in this place.


Ah, how one little change, one little improvement  has caused people to redo the entire house!
And get divorced!
And tie themselves down to the same job for another thirty years!

We crave change.
We taste new seasons before they arrive.
We dream in technicolor.
We paint in hopeful strokes.

Creativity helps us see beyond now.
And that feeds us through the night.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tales from Middle School: Part Two

Part two

            I wandered  up in the foothills for a long time, Wilson close by.  I took off his leash and we left Pearblossom with its lazy golf links and dry arroyos.
  The trail was familiar. It had been a daily trip for my mother and me when we first moved here, when we would ride for hours, thrilled by our new lives, each day staying out longer.  By the end of elementary school, other interests had occupied mother’s time, and our horses remained in the barn. The barn has been empty for a year.
 At the edge of the neighborhood, just as Wilson and I were turning into the street that would take us home, I saw the same boy with the mangy dog from the bus ride.  Oh no! The same guy that bugged me at school.
 I stopped at Jen’s, the first house on the street.
            “Alli! How did you get here?” Jen’s mother looked past me, expecting mother’s car in the driveway.
            “I walked.  Is Jen home?”
            “She’s at rehearsal.  Aren’t you in the play?”
            “Yes. I came to see if I could catch a ride.  Mom has a meeting tonight.” I said.
            “Sorry, Alli. ”
            “That’s o.k.” I said, hoping my older sister would be home.  She worked at the mall a few nights a week, and attended the community college during the day.  Other times, she was supposed to take care of me when mom was busy with her board work.
            Rats. If I missed rehearsal, I’d be kicked out. 
            Dad might be home.  But his job was far away, and the traffic always caused delays.
 Our front door was locked, and the cars were not in the driveway.
            I looked for a spare key, under flowerpots, gutter spouts, trashcans. I climbed  the back fence hoping to get in through a  window. I left Wilson by the front door.
  He  barked the entire time as I bumped into  patio furniture and bruised  shins and elbows,  all the time telling Wilson to shut up. I got so banged up that I had no energy left to climb the fence again.  I waited in the dark for somebody  to get home.
Stars, first a big one, then millions of them, all beautiful, across the Milky Way distracted me. Wilson was whining when he wasn’t barking. 
 Dad used to set up a telescope when we first moved out here.  We had come here to  the desert many times before we moved, at all  night amateur- astronomer events.  I learned the constellations during those dark nights. Just Dad and me and millions of stars.
I suddenly remembered that Dad would not get home until Friday night.  Mother had helped him find a place in town. Nobody had asked me how I felt.
After an hour, Dad pulled in the driveway and I yelled loud enough for him to hear me and come to open the back door. 
“You’re home!” I jumped up to greet him.
“Your  mother  called me. How long have you been out here?”
“Your Mom was sending  a posse up the hills two hours ago.”
“ Dad, I’m late for rehearsal.”
“When were you supposed to be there?  We need to get word to Mom and the sheriff  that you’re safe.”
“Dad, it’s not my fault!”
“Let’s go.  Put Wilson out. You need to apologize to everybody, young lady.”
“Dad, I’m sorry.”
“I had to cancel a very important meeting.  You really messed up, Alli…”
“I had a tough day.  This boy…”
“He bugs. Mother gave him a ride…”
“What’s that got to do with anything? You’re too old for these tantrums.  Like the horse. Cause, I’m sick of that.  You never took care of it, never rode it, and then when we told you we were selling it…”
“Dad.  It was my horse, mine.  How could you?”
 “You had responsibilities, chores.  You didn’t do your part. That’s how it goes, young lady.”
“I have a lot of homework, Dad.   O.K if I don’t come with you?”
“Well, don’t get on the phone.” He yelled, as he slammed the door behind him.

I was doing my math when the phone rang.
“Alli?” A boy’s voice.
“Who’s this?” I knew who it was, or I thought I knew.
“ Were you looking for me?” Bulldog, or Raymond, or whatever his real name was.  What was he doing out there? Had he followed me?
“What do you want?”
“The police is looking for you; they’re all over the place.  I told them I saw you walk toward your house.”
“Well.  I just called to be sure you were  safe.  That’s all.”
“Stop bugging me.”
And I hung up.  The phone rang again. I didn’t want to talk to anybody, so I pulled the phone off  the hook. I thought, just for a little while.
Now, they are going to believe me when I tell them about Bulldog.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The giants before us.

I've travelled a few roads in my seventy years. Here in the West, all over the U.S., and in Europe.  I've read works from all over the world.A few decades ago I could read in four different languages. Now, I can't seem to find the stamina to finish anything.  My eyes get tired; my body dozes off to sleep. Oh well, these are things  to be explored another day.

The books and authors I feature on this blog heading appeared in front of me the day I designed this blog.I remember the hullabaloo around Rushdie's  publication of Satanic Verses.  Now, if you a religious conservative, you probably did not pick up a copy and read it.  Most people were upset about Rushdie's treatment of religion. Had he appeared around the time I attended  catholic schools, his name would be anathema to me.

But, I read him in my mature years, and compared his situation to those of poor Galileo and Leonardo and the problems they had with the Church. Writers and artists and scientists have to wait years before anyone bothers to look carefully at their contributions.

In East, West, Mr Rushdie is more approachable. Less controversial. If you never questioned your own sensibilities, your point of view, your cultural biases, this book pricks you here and there.

Pirandello,- not known by many people either, though I found this collection written in English-questions our veracity, our very ability to speak the truth, as characters on a stage with an audience, as characters in our living room with our mate.
We construct reality as we speak, wearing masks with every situation.

I read Milan Kundera when I was young, and the story in The Umbearable Lightness of Being seemed to be talking to me, exposing me, stripping me down to the essence of what men and  women feel.  It was his message at the end, the motif throughout that I remember best: The burden of being human.

And then, Chomsky. If you want to know about communication, language, cognition, his works are germinal.

These are giants before us.
They are not alone.  You have works and people who have provided you with knowledge and insights.  Who are they?   

Thursday, April 21, 2011


I'm in a pensive mood,
Daddy's sing-song voice
haunting me,
the soundtrack of this reverie.
I want to tell Mother how life will be better.
We'll all be on strong footing after this,
After this sidewalk  disappears
After this house is destroyed
Forever erasing our lives together.
We will write long letters to each other
Staying in this picture for a while
keeping  those songs playing.
We are still standing tall, I want to tell her,
Our children close to us. 

Tales from Middle School.


            He stood there at the Bottle Shop,  rubbing his dog’s ears when our bus came to a sudden stop. I had not seen him before. He handed the dog chain to his mother before he boarded. Four
boys sitting in the back seat rushed up front to greet him.
“Hey, Homey! When did you get back?  Bulldog, are you back for good?”  
The driver yelled for everyone to get back to their seats. Told Bulldog to stop at 128th instead, as this was not a regular stop.
The ride to school took forty minutes, on dusty roads full of tumbleweeds, coyote brush and Joshua trees stretched out for miles, from Edwards Air Force  to the San Gabriel Mountains,   a yawning patch of dirt farms and mobile homes with a couple of light stops. Old sofas, rusty bits of discarded  machines and mangy dogs showed up here and there, the only signs of possible human life around.

The bus picked me up at Pearblossom, a walled country club enclave on the way to Wrightwood, a place where fathers commuted to Edwards or further down into Los Angeles,  where  mothers  played housewives, golf clubs in the summer, skis in the winter, volunteering here and there or at their child’s school.  
Mother was on the school board  that year, and she insisted I had to act like a normal student in everything, including taking the school bus to school most days.

 Right in front of school, my friends usually waited for me to get off the bus on most days. On that day, someone pulled my hair as I was getting off the bus. When I turned to complain, Bulldog, looked straight at me, pursed his lips and threw a kiss my way.
 “Yuk!” I yelled back, disgusted and embarrassed that my friends might have seen this cholo and misconstrue our relationship. 
At noon, as we traded fruit and chips in the cafeteria, waiting for the rest of our group to join us before going to play basketball, the boy Bulldog saw me and  waved at me from the lunch line.  I pretended not to notice.
“Look, that cute boy is waving at us!” Izzy commented.
“Don’t look! “I growled back.
“Alli, he likes you! He’d be great for you.” Jen cooed.
“No.  Not him. Let’s go!” I said and started walking away.  I  didn’t want any trouble.
  Most days we ate very little from our lunch bags.  The cafeteria aide yelled at me for the trash left on the table and  I went back to clean up.
In baggy pants and plaid shirts worn loose and open, looking like their older brothers, standing all in a clump, Bulldog and his friends seemed to be everywhere. When we played basketball, they appeared to cheer us on. 
When we left, they followed us.
Jen thought it was funny.
Felicia  wanting to know more about this boy.  
The girls snickered.  I hated that.
All of a sudden, I was charged with befriending this creep and I hardly knew him. 
“Alli.  We decided this guy is your project. You know what to do.” Both Felicia and Jen agreed with Renna.
She had come up with the game we were supposed to play. The girls all had to choose a boy  to "pretend" to like. We started this game the first week of school, and since I was the one most shy, they had waited for me to get involved. The girls chose a boy for someone and then it was the girl's responsibility to activate the plan. We had to do three outrageous things we had never done before.
“Don’t I have a choice?  Jen had a choice.”
“NO.  It doesn’t work that way. You have to do what we say.  It’s your turn."
"What am I supposed to do, again?"
"Go and befriend him. Tell him you like him. Or one of us can tell him that you like him."
"But what then?"
"You pretend to like him for a while. Call him up. Have lunch with him. You have to invent things. And each of us cannot do the same thing the other did. So, you can't go to the movies and meet him there. We've already done that."
 After the lunch bell, Bulldog had positioned himself at the door of my math class when he saw me coming down the hall.
“What’s the word?  ” He said with a wink, moving to block the entrance.
“Let me in.” I gritted, looking around for the teacher.
“You insulted me, remember? You owe me an apology.” Bulldog was smiling with a wide mouth.
 I pushed him.
“Get out of my face!” I yelled, frustrated.
Then Miss De Silva raised her voice in my direction, “Alexandria,  stop fooling around. You're late again!”
I was  embarrassed. I went to my seat, avoiding everybody's eyes,  and copied the homework on the board.

At the end of the day, I walked to the office where my mother would be waiting. Jen  was standing outside the office. She rode home with us most days.
“That boy Bulldog?  He’s waiting with your mother!”
“What?” I said, incredulously.
When Mother saw me, she handed me the keys and Jen and I went to the car. 
When she finally joined us,  Bulldog  was with her.
“Bulldog tells me you’re on the same bus.” She said when she caught up with us.
“Yeah!” I said, in the back seat next to Jen.
  We sat quietly through the whole ride.
When everybody had been dropped off, Mother addressed me angrily.
I can’t believe you.  Why were you so rude?”
“I don’t know.” I said.
Mother kept talking about her job, the school, the opportunities,the usual stuff  I heard over and over again. The minute she parked, I rushed in the house.
 “Wait a minute,we need to talk!"
“I have a lot of homework.” I shouted back.   
“Don’t get on the phone and waste time.” She admonished.
 In my room, I called Jen.
“Well, did you get his number?” Jen said breathlessly.
“You’re kidding! He is a  jerk.”
“He told the office he missed the bus. ”
“He said you’d need a ride, too.”
“He’s got some nerves!”  I was about to tell her what happened in math class when I heard Mother at my door, and I quickly hung up. She wanted to know how my day went.  I was not sure what part to tell her when the phone rang and my sister picked it up in the kitchen.
 “Alli! It’s the boy from this afternoon.”
“I don’t want to talk to him.” I said and rushed to the restroom.
“Don’t be rude!" Mother yelled back at me, "I didn’t raise you to be rude, young lady."  Then I heard her  talking on the phone. 
 I went down to the kitchen, planning to take the dog out for a walk when I saw Liz biting into a peanut butter sandwich, and  I grabbed it from her, rushing out with the dog leash,  slamming the door behind me. 
I suddenly felt better than I had felt the whole day.

(to be continued..._) 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Everything is related.

I'm watching television and see Jamie Oliver denied access to the kitchens of Los Angeles Unified School District and I'm not surprised at all. I worked in that district on and off for twenty years, as a teacher, a coordinator of special programs, a specialist, a trainer, an evaluator.  I have  few pictures of me in any one of those roles, and the one I truly remember is the one of me pregnant with my last baby, all of my being exposed so, standing  in the Teachers' cafeteria with a big bowl of salad greens I took to school that day to share with my friends.

That salad bowl was a protest statement.

The cafeteria had stopped making meals  and insisted we should have the burgers and tacos they served to the student body.  This was back in 1980! They had switched slowly from baking and cooking all food on the premises to purchasing pre-cooked patties and fries and heating them up before passing them down to the population.

Their reasoning? Two thousand people needed to be fed in twenty minutes.

I'm sure the food quality has not improved since then.
And everything that smells of change is halted before it moves down the path to the top.
In a big institution, lack of change and transparency are major drawbacks to innovation and morale.
 No wonder I moved on!

Schools are teaching children more than the basic subjects.  They show children what and how things are supposed to be. We are training our future workers here and  the main message is:

 "Shut up, eat your crappy burger, move when the bell moves, and don't get out of line!"

Now, with unions being busted in a couple of states, with thoughts of eliminating basic services everywhere, with the idea that a city can be overtaken by a finance consultant- yes, the mayor and the council are set aside and the finance consultant makes all decisions- we are creating a mess of a democracy. 

It started with schools, I'm afraid.

When schools began to have gang problems, bullying problems, lack of interest and motivation, schools had already been physically crumbling and nobody wanted additional taxes to pay for crumbling schools. The state of California passed Prop.13 to freeze property taxes!

Then, the population busted in to do more harm.
When crowds of immigrant and war-scared children appeared at the school house, nobody asked how can we ameliorate all these traumas? 
Nobody wanted to pay for fixing anything.

Instead, the various government agencies all blamed schools for lack of progress!
And, to remedy that, they offered vouchers for people to take their children out to private schools.
So, public schools got worse.
Families with any means began leaving the schools.
Motivated teachers left.
Motivated students left.

And now, outside agencies are taking over public schools for profit.
And since they are not public agencies, they don't have to be transparent.
They don't have to show progress in the same way.
They don't even have to hire professionally trained personnel.

We make a mess. We walk away.
We make a mess. We blame others.
We have a mess. We turn it over to a profiteer.

If Jaime Oliver gets to work at West Adams Middle School, ( I do know that school!) it will be a miracle. A miracle to open up the system and speak plainly about what all the issues are, without assigning blame  or walking away.

In this blog about school tales, this is the lesson:
Everything is somehow connected to everything else.  We should all be putting our heads together and talk about what we know, what we see, what we can do.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

In Our Element

At lunch with an Ambition martini, 
Leather chairs embracing our backs,
Figures, yearly goals, power-suits and Ocean views
Reflected in floor- to -ceiling windows 
Everyone and everything superimposed in a nearly- perfect pairing
All the things we loved, all in one place,
Air-conditioned to keep us all content and productive.

The last time we got wet and cold,
We couldn’t
Hear ourselves for the
Screeching  seagulls,  we couldn’t
Trace our steps for
Waves erasing our footprints.

We ran after empty sandwich bags
Cleaning the shore of all human waste,
Waves lapping our fast retreats
Sand burying all other ambitions.

We feasted on crab we caught
and tossed on the fire, hair and seaweed mixed together,
human and vegetable, water and sand, a perfect pairing
In that cold and windy place.
We laughed and ran and ate and cuddled up at the end.
We were in our element.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Hunger never sleeps

My hunger dreams were always scrappy
carrots, slender- tender
ribs charred to tenderness
blood-staining  juice  on
creamy heaps of hot potatoes
piled high just out of  reach.
Only, I was heavy as an iron beam
too cumbersome to move.

I had no memory of how I ended up so failed
on the  frozen fields where I lay  
pinned down,fever -hot with crisping rancor.  
It was the babies wailing for a while in
their soiled skin smell  that made me move.
I  scooped both of them up, one for each tit,
held them tight to my body, them
rooting and slipping out of their messy clothing,
ready to lip
their way out of hunger and cold.
Then, all warm,
we dreamt of sugar canes 
for our sweet- juicy- sloppy lips.
My limbs, still heavy with sleep
kept shutting the door
to keep the wind out
and the dream in.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Finding one's voice


 I’ll go once, feel the vibes, meet the people. Something to do.
 That’s how I came to join the Bandon Writers, a few years ago. 
 Half a dozen people sitting around big  tables in a modest low-set building that served as a church on weekends, between  a carpet depot and a liquor store. The place is at the edge of a town with stunning vistas of the Pacific. 
 Here, the golf links are world famous, but every thing else feels insignificant.  Forest land on one side, the Pacific on the other, Highway 101 curving around pastures, forest groves and small hamlets.  Rivers and creeks swell up during the wet season covering roads and highways. The rest of the world wishes it could breathe this air and soak in these vistas. 

Those who live here wish they could be somewhere else after eight months of incessant rain.

 Seven are regulars:  Gus, Josie, Amie, Gilda, Lee, Hammer and Marla, pen names, chosen as handy umbrellas for unexpected fallouts.  The irony is that no umbrella can stop the soaking Oregon rain.
Layla introduced herself as Shena.   I shouted back at her, confused and excited:
“Didn’t you call yourself Layla?”
 Shena was an accomplished public persona, not the person that came through the stories.   Haunted by an accident she did not cause,  Shenalayla’s heart of soft cream, fluffed up to tell a heart wrenching story,  moving her memory’s camera angle each time to a new place, to gain understanding and find peace.  A mother’s grief.  She and Gilda had the same compulsion to revisit their children’s actions.
Raw needs to scratch wounds.
 New people were always dropping in. 
Early on, an old movie star came on her annual visit, distilling her life  in that one sharing, a single postcard with gilded edges.
 I too could appear and reappear, weave my lines, and become somebody else.
            Hints of cities, shiny new cars, childhood bikes.  A young girl with pink bows. Youth with hope crayons.  
Icy roads, gale winds, ruts, shoulder- less curves, did not compare to the fear that kept me from sharing.  I chose the pen name Nausika, the brave princess who helped ocean-weary  Odysseus.  
 Like him, I needed a life vest to get back to my roots. 
 I had lost the way home, lost my voice. 

  When I was five, a couple of men had come to our house to buy a horse.  The men were haggling.  It was late; Tired and hungry, I blurted out, “You are listing faults with the horse so you don’t have to pay the full price.”  The men mumbled something, and left abruptly.  Later, they returned to buy the horse and specifically asked Dad to keep me out of that meeting. Dad told that story many times, teasing me about my ability to see right through an issue.  
He added, “I like how you told the truth.”
Later, an incident at school discouraged  my instincts. 
  A group of missionaries  had arrived to preach during Passion Week, encouraging us to offer something from our heart, flowers, candles, a poem, something to show our devotion to the Virgin Mary.
  “Go out and choose the signs of your love, bring your tokens to church, and you will be blessed.”
After school, four of us went to pick flowers in the city park across the street,   singing, anticipating the joy of bringing those flowers to church.   A few minutes into the task, we were yelled at, and marched right back to school.
The following day, the teacher and the director paraded us at a public assembly so everybody would understand the crime we had committed.  
My parents decided  I needed additional punishment, once for the crime, and twice for the embarrassment to the family.  How could my parents doubt my good intentions and allow me to get punished so shamefully?  Was I not telling the truth?   

Our  Monday group explored moral marshes of undiscovered depths.  I was traipsing in, longing to recapture a world that was more transparent.  I just wanted my voice to evolve and be distinguished from the  chorus.  The group may not like what they heard, but I needed to say it.  
I needed to examine the gains  and losses,  virtues and vices.

             Gus, eighty-something, having difficulty staying awake, sharing bits of this and that,  read in a strong voice, transporting us.  Before we could react, he would tell us the writer who had written the piece.  Sometimes he didn’t say a thing, and we could not tell.   
  He wrote stories about ordinary detectives who had worked long and hard, obsessed with horrible crimes.  
 I didn’t care for those stories.  
Evil scared me.
 Gus’s  wife waited for him in the parking lot, ready to drive him home.  I asked him once to let her come in and stay warm inside with the group. No, he said, she does not like people.  She is Scandinavian.  He went on and on, depicting a devoted, but very quirky woman who drove him everywhere  and just waited outside. 
A bit like my husband, another Norse  loving his solitude. 
Me, I must have people.  I guess we tend to balance each other, most of the times.
 What makes a man Gus’s age want to spend time writing about crimes?  Is it an antidote to a dull life sitting on the fence? There must be more.  If you were to judge me by what I write, well, you’d think me unhappy and serious. Plenty of ghosts have kept me awake, jabbering in different languages.  In the daytime, those ghosts are continents away. 
In the daytime, I speak the language of expedience.
 Getting older makes us fearful of our bodily functions getting away from us; fart, and you must retreat.  We’ve already given up on sweets, long walks and  favorite pasta.  What’s next?

 Lee was the published author in our group.  I sought his work in the libraries after Gilda gave me one of his books.   Evil characters were also  prominent in his books.
 The last book I read depicted a Nazi Doctor holed up with a Jewish woman in New York.  A proud man on top of his game, had just received the Nobel Peace prize for helping starving nations. During his acceptance speech he publicly admits  to be one of the world’s most wanted criminal.  Holing up in New York was his way to sort out his life and provide the explanations to the world.  His logic was flawless. Evil among us.
Midway through the story, I wanted to put the book down.  I shared with him that the protagonist was way too evil for my sensibilities.   That book got him hate mail, he confessed.
 I was not skilled.  Most of us were not.  But  Lee’s abilities to create characters and events on a world wide scale were so superior  that it was hard to find the courage to disagree with him.  He was a master.  I felt like hamburger next to Kobe beef.    Lee was not his real name either.

            Josie  wrote stories that were  both light and heavy, about conquering or being encumbered.  She was afraid of growing old.  Needs in plain view.  Youngest among the regulars, her shoulders and  hair told us what we suspected:  she was still enjoying regular sex. Lucky girl. Most of us couldn’t even think about what we were missing.  She reeked of hungers reserved for the young. Lust for all things sweet and forbidden.  Subjects of soap operas and Harlequin romances.

 When did we start hiding our needs?  Growing pains and aging pains are the same; they hit you when you are most vulnerable.  Only, when you are older you are given pills.  They must think we have more disposable income, or are needier, or more impatient.  Give us, oh Lord, our daily pill, like there is a tomorrow…

 Amie, an actor with a life on a couple of continents, read with various accents, gambling adventures  one day,  and romantic escapades another.  Her stories, like stage plays,  were gorged with  dialogue and stage directions, with characters  eager to be transported or too damaged to care.  She encouraged suggestions, fussed with details, dressed  her characters carefully.
 Amie’s real life could fill many story plots, each with new vocabulary she so eagerly collected. Amy was a collector.  A connoisseur of people and things.   Her stories courted regret, and the greedy need for recognition that had been earned but not yet  bestowed.
 Getting up from her usual seat across Hammer, she’d walk over to the bookshelves and look up words in the unabridged dictionary, challenging  the subtler meanings.  Her vocabulary was second only to Lee’s.  Her challenges were ours.

Water  permeated every aspect of life.   A walk on the beach brought us face to face with death.  Water could not be ignored.  The force of the waves and the force of running water were all around us.   No matter how heavy a log is when it falls and traps the water of the creek, eventually, those waters will rise and tumble over, demanding their natural destination. 
Each of us asked that of our writing. 
That if we could not move that log, than we needed to find a way to rectify the situation, and send those waters down to the ocean.  All things find their way to the end. 
The forces of the universe.

 Gilda, sitting next to Amie, understood the needs of those characters, women who were vocal about their needs, unashamed of wanting more.  But I did not understand; my generation felt a whole lot of guilt in wanting anything. 
We didn’t speak up about our needs.
 Gilda had invited me to join the group. She was writing about her daughter and grandchild.  I mentioned that I was interested in writing about mother-daughter relationships.  My need to write surged when I could not speak .   I know parents who walk on eggshells around their daughters.  They can’t quite put their finger on the problem, the rebelliousness and the rejection that they get from their daughters.  Something about girls’ need to be loved and cherished gets confused with other needs. 

Hearing  other writers  stumble  to find a good rhythm made us patient with our own  writing.   Attempting to help, though,  turned into something else.  We resembled  hungry pups,  selfishly fighting to get more. If people could not take criticism, then, they were not serious.  Those of us who stuck around and returned for more punches were beginning to feel immune.  Go ahead, we can take it, we sang to ourselves.

Once, this man who had been attending regularly came with his wife.  He was confident and eloquent.  His wife was protective.  That day, when she heard a negative remark, she just couldn’t take it anymore, she declared angrily.  She got up and told her husband to follow her.  Astounded, we remained numb. 
Her anger, raw and pointed:
 “If you guys know better, then where is your stuff?”
 There should have been an applause.  None followed.
  “We need both nurturing and criticism” I thought.
 We need the bitter-sweet honest truth, the tension that keeps us working harder.
I hated  sitting on the receiving end.  Wait, I wanted to shout back, wait, didn’t you like..? 

The poets in the group seemed to do better. 
I enjoyed every one of Marla’s poems, sharp and touching tributes to the human condition.  We could hear the English teacher in her comments, a person who respected precision, and valued the subtleties of language. Marla fussed about every comma and every article.  For her, poetry had only one chance to get it right.

Layla was semi- regular.   She had disappeared for a year before I met her.  I immediately liked her.  Something about trying to tell a difficult story.  Sometimes, she traded musings for a bit of inner peace, a small harbor for her pains.  We all understood that she needed to tear the bandages, expose her wounds.  The toughest part was that her life was precarious still, and whatever she touched spoke of fragility.  We understood fragility.  Fragility sits right under the eyelids,   waves waiting to hit the shore.
When I shared my first story I could hardly read it out loud, for tears were blocking my words.  There was a hole in my heart that needed mending.  And I was the only one who knew that.
Lee’s admonishment that it is not how the author feels, but how the reader feels that counts, is now burned in me.  What do I have to do to make my reader feel like I feel?  What are the words that speak directly to the heart?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Notes to add to Unnamed Madonnas.

Some elements in this story were present from the very start:

1. The search for the past.

2. The mother-daughter conflict.

Do you know  a story ahead of time, or do you discover it along the way?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Cooking up a story and serving it up.

Salsa, fresh and spicy,  ingredients freshly picked, relevant to this dish, cut in big chunks so not to miss the stars of the show, contrasts right in front of you, red and green and white.
Nothing is missing. 
This salsa should be enjoyed with gusto!

Not so fast.
This salsa could be enjoyed if the eaters are starving for Mexican food, have experienced a variety of salsa and find this one irresistible for the pieces you chose to feature, the very same pieces that someone who doesn't like salsa would also refuse. 
You kept those pieces big and prominent!

That's just how it is with writing a story you know well, and you serve it unashamedly, in big chunks, the way you feel it should really be. And then>>>
Someone looks at it, and walks away to something else.
Someone who wouldn't know how to appraise whole big chunks of salsa-pico de gallo.
Someone whose idea of a food that is pronounced in a foreign language is well, too foreign.
Someone who never had Mexican foods.
Someone whose sensibilities you have offended just by laying out the ingredients in such a raw way.  Some people like things to come in cans, in jars, in blended variations.

That is your problem, and your blessing!
You cook for yourself in the way you like to be fed.
You are not trying to sell anything.

One day though, someone will like your salsa, recommend a labeling firm, tweak your recipe to appeal to the mass market, and voila' your pico-de-gallo is transformed and jarred in a beautiful container with snippets of Acapulco and magical sunsets evoked in its commercials. 

Just remember that.
Remember that most cooks are slaving quietly at home and are not appreciated.
Remember that they like to cook.
Remember that cooking/preparing a great salsa is its own reward!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Unnamed Madonnas-Final Chapter

Final Chapter

            On a glorious Monday morning, the sun  shining brightly over  olive groves and vineyards, apple and almond blossoms wafting peacefully in the air, I smiled at my good fortune, dressed and went downstairs, hungry and curious where I met the couple from the previous  night, in the kitchen speaking a dialect I could not understand. Marianna, arranging vases of lavender and roses  introduced the couple as Cesare and Cleopatra. Then she took a tray of coffee and pastries and moved out on the patio for breakfast.
 The compound was an agriturism facility, she explained,  busy in the summer with tourists.   Visitors wanted to learn to cook the way their aunts and grandparents had cooked.  Marianna hired an international work force  most of them  from poor countries she had worked in.
 There were three structures  connected by courtyards, terraces and a  swimming pool.  Overlooking the vineyards and gardens was  a trellised garden shaded by  bougainvillea and jacaranda trees. The place was called Terre Nostre. 
            The original farmhouse, a white stucco structure with green trim, housed the wine making business. After breakfast, we walked about and Marianna showed me where she and Tina shared a bedroom for five years.  This is the place where Marianna’s mother helped in my delivery.
            She asked if I wanted to take pictures of the place.  I was speechless. That  simple question stopped me in my thoughts. 
“Ryan, your boy?”
I must have looked  confused.
            “Do you know when it will occur?  When he becomes  a father.  Then, he’ll want to tell his children about the grandparents.  Especially if he’s never known them.  They want to close the circle.”
            I began to understand why she was lavishing so much hospitality on a total stranger.  She talked about her bouts of depression and nostalgia and how most of us who grew up away from our roots feel  disjointed.  We talked for hours, walking the land, gathering salad greens, collecting eggs.
            The kitchen garden had neat raised beds with herbs and greens and espaliered fruit trees.   Moving slowly, smelling  and pulling young arugula and radicchio, I was lost in thoughts.  
            “Il paese `e rimasto nel passato.” The town has remained in the past. She explained that few people have modernized and adapted their businesses as she did.  Most owners are new people, falling in love with an unspoiled place. 
“Have you always lived here?” I asked.
"Oh no! We were all  sent away to school. I studied English and ended up as a journalist."  
The nephew who helped me in Venice was born in Germany, studied in Belgium and Switzerland, and settled in Italy. Marianna’s ninety year old mother lived with her sister in Salerno and had abandoned everything to give her children a new lease on life. 
            “Tutti abbiamo  bisogno di trovare la nostra storia. ”  We all  have the need to find our history.
  I wanted to talk to her in Italian, but I kept slipping back into English.  She did the same. With the Egyptian couple, she spoke Arabic. 
"Keeping your language," she said, "allows you to feel whole, to keep threads of your life.I was just surprised you waited so long to visit.”
“What do you mean?”
 She talked about how I had been everybody’s baby. Tina and many other girls looked at those babies that survived the war as gifts from God, a sign that He had not forgotten them.
“When you and Tina left, you represented all of our hope to leave and start life anew.  What we didn’t know was how hard it was to forget .  I am sure that’s what Tina was trying to do; to help you she had to forget too.”
“We had fights about that.  She kept bringing up how much she missed Italy.”
“You know, for us, for my brothers and sisters, we had this place to return to.  My siblings  were sent  to the orphanage after the war. I was the only one that remained and when I had  an opportunity to travel,  I jumped at it. Everybody left to find jobs, to go to school. To escape poverty everyone needed  an education beyond elementary.  For that, they needed to leave town.  Mother kept us as long as she could feed us.We had garlic soup for dinner, with old bread soaked in. We had fried onions for breakfast.  We had bread and whatever grew naturally out of the ground that had been abandoned and stomped on by many soldiers. People  paid for Mother’s midwife services with whatever they had, vegetables, olive oil, eggs.  In one instance, when a mother  died in childbirth and her husband shot himself,  all  four children, including the infant were taken in by Mother.”
“What was this place like back then?”
“At that time we didn’t have so many buildings. We all lived in one house. Mother fed many children whose families were unable to feed them. Many children walked in and out of our lives.  When my younger  brother left for Germany, he told Mother that she didn’t need to worry about him. With all those children to feed, she wasn’t going to miss him.
"Later, as things improved, Italy had to import labor," Marianna explained.  " I had met Cesare and Cleopatra on one of my assignments in the middle east; they had been  drivers and translators, so, it was a natural progression for them to come and run this business for me. " 
 Legal and illegals  from Africa and the Middle East, even Japan and China are  finding jobs no Italian wanted to do anymore. Marianna’s summer workers are on work visas from all parts of the world.  Most of them speak at least one other language.

I told her I was grateful for the hospitality, that I wished we had met under better circumstances, she smiled, and said:
“These are the circumstances that brought us all back together, and we must make the best of them.  Today is Little Easter, an opportunity to meet lots of people who have returned to town to celebrate ,up there, on the hill beyond the pig enclosure.”
            “La Chiesa della Madonna delle Grazie.  Tina and I would go there.  Did she tell you about that?”
            “Well, it was our private place. We were thirteen, fourteen.  After school, we’d pack our lunch and have a picnic up there.  We’re two miles from town; even back then, Mother had a horse and a wagon that took her to town and us to school.  If she was tied up in the afternoons, we’d walk back, stop by the church, and get home by the time she was finished." 

The   town celebrates a Mass  there a couple of days a year, this is one of them.  Everybody walks up to the church and families all take their picnic lunch and share with their neighbors. 
            We packed sandwiches , wine and mineral water and walked up  to the church,  joined by people from every which direction, all going up the same mountain.
She introduced me to them, and by the time we sat down, we had twenty-thirty people all talking about miracles or some other story related to the church.  Everyone had made the pilgrimage for a special reason. 
            Marianna took a call on her cell and then passed me the phone.
            “Signora, for you.” She handed me the phone.
“Your husband has been found.” It was Sergio.
“Oh Thank God!” I was chocking and couldn't talk. Marianna picked up and continued the conversation.
“He had a medical emergency.” She explained.
“Is he O.K.?”
“He’ll tell you the details.  Yes, he’s O.K.”
“Thank God.  When can I talk to him?”
“They’re discharging him this afternoon, and they'll call you back later."  She hugged me and for a minute, a brief minute I felt in the arms of my mother, a feeling that kept me sobbing for a while.

“I guess this is the end of our visit.  Everything turned out fine, thanks to the Madonna.” Marianna still held on to me, and I needed all the strength of that hug.
“Marianna, I can’t thank you enough.  You and Sergio…”
“Don’t mention it.  It’s the Madonna .You’re both welcome to stay as long as you want.  You are helping me reconnect as well, you know.  You’re closing the circle for me.  But promise that you’ll return with your boy and spend more time here.  You still have a house here, remember?”
I didn’t know when and if  I would ever return to Italy, but I said, "It's a date. We are returning."
“You were an only child,” Marianna explained, “the paperwork should be easy. Think of how your boy will appreciate this in the future, when he’s searching for his roots.”
“How long and  expensive is this process?”
Italy is full of codes and dark alleys when it comes to government efficiency.  You have to be diligent and tenacious.”
           When we returned to the house,  I called Denise with the good news.  I was hoping she had not talked to Ryan and worried him too much. I told her when and where I’d be at the Rome airport.
On Tuesday morning, after two hours’ drive, we reached the   airport. 
Sergio had made all the arrangements, getting Steve out of the hospital, clearing the police problem, arranging the flight for both of us from Rome. 
Steve looked very tired.  After we embraced and cried and laughed, after we said our goodbyes to Marianna and Sergio and boarded our plane for Los Angeles, I got the story from him.
While he was having drinks with the German couple, Steve had an allergy reaction to the morning shell fish lunch, and was rushed to a nearby clinic.  From there, he was moved to another one with overnight accommodation.  The German couple had returned to the cafĂ© to wait for me after I had left the spot and had already boarded the boat that took me back to my hotel. 
They remained a couple of hours, waiting for me.  Then, they left message with the bar to inform me of my husband’s condition.   This is the first place Sergio stopped at to get information, making sure to talk to everybody.   

The nurses had his name, and the hotel information. They contacted the hotel Friday morning and were told by the hotel clerk that the tour group had just left.
 Sergio had made inquiries at the coffee shop and at the clinics, and finally found him.
The fact that the incident happened during a holiday complicated the search quite a bit.
Even at our hotel, there were many regulars who took that holiday, and the part time substitutes didn't follow up on messages either.
Marianna’s generosity had connected me to my homeland and the people and land that made up my patrimony, and had reunited me with my husband.
We can never repay them.
We are forever connected to them.  Next year, we have to  plan a different trip.