First Blog of 2020

Picks from 2019, the good, the not so good, and some things to share

I’ve been on hiatus for a while. The holiday season is a busy one and my blog got pushed aside. No promises yet on how regular my blogs will be in 2020, but this is a start.

Best new quote:  Vulnerability is the courage to be imperfect.  Brené Brown

Best sleep discovery: Calm, the app for sleep. Bedtime stories for adults—works like a charm! Listening to a story turns off my busy brain. I never manage to stay awake for the whole story, but that’s the point. Zzzzzz

Best memory: My artist residency at Studio Faire in  Nérac, France, was definitely the high point of my year. A special shout out to my hosts, Julia Douglas and Colin Usher for nourishing dreams. For those of you who wonder exactly what an artist residency is all about, read this testimonial from former resident, Miguel Guerrero Beccera:  “Julia and Colin have established a sanctuary, a wondrous village within a village where judgement is the only foreign word, and everything is connected by the same ligature of love, and urge for creation.” There are still a few openings available at Studio Faire for 2020. Make your dream a reality.

Low point of the year: The Kincaid fire. Once again flames devoured part of Sonoma County. I was only inconvenienced but many others were not so lucky—lives were disrupted, homes and businesses lost. Once, again, we proved we are Sonoma strong, but will this really be the new normal? Continue reading

Fear and Gratitude in Sonoma County

 

While firefighters are making great strides in containment, parts of Sonoma County are still on fire. Actually, a lot of California is on fire. And, if you are interested in a global perspective, much of the world is on fire—from the Amazon Rain Forest to the Arctic Circle. Can the diehards continue to deny global warming?

One would think that a fire storm that burned more than 76,000 acres, and displaced more than 180,000 people, would inspire me to write something profound. Instead, I’ve been totally blocked, unable to write anything. Where should I start? How could I do justice to an event so huge, so impactful, so tragic? Tonight, having returned to my home after four days in limbo, I’m ready to take a stab at it.

My mandatory evacuation notice arrived early Sunday morning. I was so sure my area was safe that I’d packed nothing in advance. My son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter, Elise, plus two cats were sheltering with me. They’d evacuated from Healdsburg. I had power. Elise was excited to be spending an overnight at Nana’s house. Emily, my daughter-in-law, shed a few tears from time to time but, overall, we were having a lovely time together. After dinner, we retired for the night feeling pretty secure. However, no one, except Elise, got much sleep. Phone alerts buzzed on and off all night. It went something like this— go to sleep, phone buzzes, back to sleep, phone buzzes. Bleary-eyed, I tried to focus on messages that seemed to repeat the same thing, over and over, about other areas—not mine.  Then, at 5 AM, it was mine.

Ethan was repacked and out by six. I was about 15 minutes behind. Our original plan was to go to Oakland and stay with my oldest son, Ben. I’d been on the road about 10 minutes (going nowhere) when Ethan texted a change of plans. They were going to Manteca where Emily’s parents were staying with family. Sitting in gridlocked traffic, Oakland seemed unattainable. I called my friend, Lourdes, in Petaluma. Another friend, Mala, was already there.

“Come on over.”

A drive that usually takes 25 to 30 minutes took me three and a half hours. Nevertheless, I was strangely calm. Everyone one the road seemed calm as well. No hot tempers and blaring horns. Drivers courteously allowed cars to merge from side streets despite the fact that traffic was bumper-to-bumper.

Was I frightened? A bit. Was I really about to lose my home and everything in it? It seemed possible. Yet, despite everything, I was grateful—grateful  that on this evacuation, everyone had time to get out safely. Sitting on Highway 12 going 0 to 5 mph, I thought about last year’s fire in Paradise where people sitting in gridlocked traffic had nowhere to go as they watched the fire gaining on them. Eighty-six people died in that fire. And I thought about the Tubbs Fire, the year before, when fire licked at back doors while people raced out the front, often in their pajamas. So, yes, in the midst of chaos, I was feeling grateful.

Mala and I stayed with Lourdes for almost four days. So many people were suffering, sleeping on cots at evacuation centers or staying with friends with no power. There were large families stuffed into tiny trailers. And there I was, sleeping in my own room with a private bath, power, phone, wi-fi, and hot water. I felt both guilty and grateful.

Tuesday night, Mala and I took Lourdes out to dinner. The people at the next table paid for another couple’s meal when they learned they were evacuees. As the restaurant emptied out, I struck up a conversation with the lucky recipients. They told me that they left an Italianate style home in Healdsburg, one they’d rescued from a possum colony many years ago.

“I’m from the East,” I said. “I love old homes.

The man sat a little straighter. He was clearly interested, “Where are you from.”

“I was born in Bethlehem and raised in a little town in Berks County.”

He knew it. He was from adjacent Bucks County. My dad was born in Bucks County. We shared collective memories of the area. The man’s father was probably the Santa on whose lap I sat when I was a tot. Small world. The conversation left us all feeling strangely happy. Grateful, again.

I had an appointment in Santa Rosa yesterday, so I decided to stop at my house. Everything looked so normal. A neighbor informed me that many people never left. I wanted to stay myself, but I had business back in Petaluma. I needed to pick up all my stuff there anyway and, being a dutiful citizen, I decided to wait for the evacuation order to be lifted. However, seeing my home sitting there safe and sound finally dissolved the knot at the pit of my stomach. I was no longer concerned for myself—simply concerned about others not so fortunate. No more fear. Lots of gratitude.

I no sooner returned to Petaluma when I got the message—evacuations removed for Santa Rosa, Windsor and Healdsburg. My friends’ homes were safe. My kids could go home, and so could I.

So here I sit, putting the finishing touches on my blog and thinking about everything that’s transpired. I’ve been touched by the kindness of strangers and gained an even greater appreciation for the comfort and camaraderie found in friendship. I can’t thank the firefighters and peacekeepers enough. They saved us. I was reminded, yet again, that when the going gets rough, Sonoma County comes together—Sonoma County strong. My friend, Laura Carr, summed up the past week as “equal parts adventure, tumult, chaos and gratitude.” I couldn’t have said it better.

Gothic Horror Novels for Halloween Reading

A recent blog by fellow writer, Crissi Langwell, listed spellbinding books to read before Halloween. A few of them were dark, a few were more lighthearted, like a favorite of mine, The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen. But, where Halloween is concerned, I favor dark. I remember how I loved the midnight horror movies that played every Saturday night when I was a teen. I was a huge fan of Frankenstein, the Wolfman, Count Dracula and, of course, the Mummy. So, it’s not a surprise that I also love reading about all things scary. I’m a huge fan of Ann Rice’s vampire books. The Shining is my favorite Stephen King novel. The Haunting of Hill House, The Exorcist—I could go on and on about fairly recent fright books. Yet, Halloween makes me long for true Gothic horror novels. The one usually regarded as the first is The Castle of Otranto by English author Horace Walpole, first published in 1764. I confess, I’ve never read it. My list begins a bit later. It was the 19th century that gave us a host of well-known Gothic horror classics from venerated writers. Here are my six favorites in no particular order…

Frankenstein: 2018 marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s acclaimed Gothic novel, written when she was just eighteen. Considered by many to be the first work of science fiction, both Frankenstein and his monster embody the dangers of unchecked scientific discovery—a theme that is just as pertinent today. Frankenstein’s monster, while hideously ugly, is also sensitive and emotional. Shunned by society, the monster seeks revenge with murderous consequences.

Dracula: Published in 1897, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is considered to be one of the greatest gothic novels ever written. It introduced the character of Count Dracula and established many of the conventions of subsequent vampire fantasy—garlic anyone? In essence, the novel isn’t really a “novel” at all. Rather than having a single narrator, the story is told through a series of diary entries, telegrams, memoranda and occasional newspaper clippings knitted together by Mina Harker as proof that everything related in the story is true. While not the first vampire to appear in fiction, Dracula is definitely the definitive one.

The Turn of the Screw: When I was a teen, I watched Ingrid Bergman in a dramatization of The Turn of the Screw on television. Heart pounding in terror, I thought I might actually be having a heart attack. I can honestly say it was the most terrifying TV program I’ve ever experienced. The Gothic horror story that inspired such teenage angst is just as terrifying today as it was when it Henry James wrote it in1898. The ambiguous nature of the story has inspired critical analysis and debate. Is the governess mad? Are the ghosts real or imagined? Are the children doomed innocents or in league with unspeakable evil? Read it and decide for yourself.

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of the best-known works of Robert Louis Stevenson. Published in 1885, this early foray into science fiction examines the ever-present battle between good and evil as Dr. Jekyll, like every human being, struggles with that dichotomy within himself. Seeking to purify his soul through scientific means, Jekyll concocts potions intended to refine his loftier qualities by separating them from his base impulses. In the process, he unleashes the monster within. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde gets our hearts pumping with its brutal murders, magical potions, inexplicable events, game-changing documents, and, of course, the evil-oozing Mr. Hyde.

The Portrait of Dorian Gray: Published in 1890, The Portrait of Dorian Gray was the only novel Oscar Wilde wrote. At the time of its publication it offended the moral sensibilities of British book reviewers, some of whom said that Oscar Wilde merited prosecution for violating the laws guarding public morality. The book centers on a startling premise—upon understanding that his beauty will fade, Dorian Gray sells his soul, to ensure that a recently painted portrait of himself, rather than he, will age and fade. As Dorian sinks into a life of crime and gross sensuality, his body retains perfect youth and vigor while his recently painted portrait grows more gruesome day by day, a hideous record of evil.

The Island of Doctor Moreau: The Island of Doctor Moreau is an 1896 science fiction novel by English author H. G Wells. and remains one of his best-known books. The text of the novel is the narration of Edward Prendick, a shipwrecked man who is left on the island home of Doctor Moreau. The “good” doctor is a mad scientist who creates human-like hybrid beings from animals via vivisection. The novel deals with a number of philosophical themes, including pain and cruelty, moral responsibility, human identity, and human interference with nature. This interference with nature is a major factor in many of the books on my horror list.

#7 – Any Story by Edgar Allan Poe: Poe is undeniably the master of horror: “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, “The Masque of the Red Death”…purchase a complete anthology of his terrifying tales and read them all.

I stumbled across this list while I was doing some research. If you enjoy being horrified, check it out:

The Best Gothic Horror Books Of All Time

HAPPY HALLOWEEN

Procrastination 101—Purse Cleaning Day

It’s amazing how often I distract myself from doing the things that make me feel good, like exercising, or painting or writing. Instead, I procrastinate, which—in the end— rarely makes me feel good. Case in point, yesterday I set my intention to work on illustrations for my children’s book. Instead, I distracted myself with a few meaningless tasks—and one that turned out not to be.

For some reason I decided to clean out my every-day purse. One purse led to another. Expanding the job to include all the purses I’ve used in the past six months gleaned some surprising results. Once I discarded old receipts, ancient cough drops, lint, and other useless junk, here’s what I found.

  • $12.48 in U.S. coins
  • 1,50 in euros
  • Two pairs of earrings—two of my favorites. I purchased them in France several years ago.When I’m running late, I have a habit of grabbing earrings on my way out the door and tossing them in a purse. I intend to put them on later. Sometimes I forget. Evidently, I forget where I put them as well. Found at last!
  • One tube of lipstick, my favorite brand (Zuzu organic) in my favorite color. How did I forget about that?
  • Missing library card—I’ve been wanting to get some books for school, but I couldn’t locate that darn card. There’s a five-dollar fee to replace a lost one. Couldn’t pay that when I knew mine was somewhere. Found it!
  • Forgotten business cards from people I actually want to contact (and some I don’t).
  • Assorted partially stamped cards from Yogurt Time, billed as the #1 self-serve frozen yogurt shop. Put together, I find I have enough points for a free cup of yogurt, and I’m well on my way to a second.
  • Last, but certainly not least, a gold ring. I noticed it, one day, in a box of assorted jewelry that came to me after my mother’s death. Although I don’t usually wear gold, I slipped it on. Later, I must have taken it off and dropped It into my purse. I don’t remember why —don’t even remember doing it. But, once found, something made me take a closer look at that ring. Holding it under a light, I noticed faint engraving: L.T.H to G.W.H 10-8-45. It’s my father’s wedding band. My mother wore it after his death. It made its way to me after hers.  Something I carelessly dropped into a purse has, suddenly, become precious—the only memento I have from my father.

When is a ring more than a ring? When it brings back warm memories. I can’t quite describe my feelings after finding that ring. Just let me say, I’m glad I decided to clean purses (and a bit bummed I didn’t paint).

 

 

 

 

One of my favorite photos of my dad reading me the Sunday comics—the beginning of my lifetime love of reading.

 

 

 

 

 

The Art of Imperfection

I have written about dealing with imperfection in the past, but I think it can always stand revisiting. For myself, I have spent a good part of my life pursuing perfection—in myself and in my art. It’s exhausting. When I was a teen, I had to deal with the awful fact that I was never going to look like Natalie Wood. Big disappointment! However, we did have something in common. I can honestly say that we were the same height. Unfortunately, Natalie is gone and imperfect me is, thankfully, still here.

I will never write the great American novel, especially since I specialize in memoir, short story, poetry and picture books for children. Another youthful dream laid to rest. I’ve also come to grips with the fact that none of my paintings are likely to hang in a really prestigious museum. I’m OK with that. I am content to be a medium size fish in a rather small pond. It’s a lovely pond. Sonoma County is chock full of creative people and I get to swim around with them. My writing and painting endeavors have attracted a few admirers. Best of all, I enjoy what I’m doing. I haven’t given up on perfecting my craft, but I have learned to lighten up. So, I thought I’d share a few pieces of my art that were transformed by their imperfections.

Nature Nymph

Many years ago, I took an art class for teachers. I made a great wolf puppet out of paper mâché and fabric that still makes an appearance in my classroom whenever I do my Little Red Riding Hood unit. I also sculpted a small clay nude. She was never intended to grace my classroom, but I was rather proud of her. The instructor promised to do a first firing of all the student pieces. At the next class, we would be able to glaze our work. Then everything would go back into the kiln for a second firing. I was very excited at the prospect of experimenting with glazes. Alas, it was not to be. I returned to class to find my little nude sitting with a large hole in her chest. Sitting next to her on the counter were her breasts. They could be re-attached with glue, but that would preclude any possibility of her going back into the kiln. What to do? I could have tossed her away, but I didn’t. I reattached those perky breasts and I painted her. When I put on a clear gloss topcoat, she looked like porcelain. The crack didn’t even show.  A bird’s nest went on top of her head, a butterfly on one hand, and her other arm now sprouts a tree branch complete with small leaves. I formed them out of florist tape. Without her little accident she probably would have been quite boring—not nearly as much fun.

When my sons were boys, they used to beg me to take her off the dining table when their friends came to dinner. They are quite fond of her now. She has been a part of our family for more than thirty years. I decorate her with a tiny string of faux lights at Christmas. She holds a sprig of red berries in the fall, flowers in the spring.

Is she perfect? No. One arm is a little longer than the other and, if you really look closely, you might be able to see the crack. But, after all these years, she still makes me smile.

A Hole Where Her Heart Used to Be

At one time I was a gourd artist. I loved working with gourds. I’m not sure why I stopped. I have boxes of gourds in my storage shed waiting for the day when I rediscover my passion. To tell the truth, I sold a lot of my creations. However, there is one I will never sell. I found that gourd, at The Caning Shop in Berkeley. I was there doing a workshop when I spied it in a back room—the largest gourd I had ever seen. It was the perfect shape for a figure. There was only one problem. The gourd sported a large crack and a small hole. It was not perfect. Still, I looked at it longingly.

“Do you want it?” the proprietor asked me. “I can’t sell it. It’s damaged.”

Indeed, I did! I took it home, repaired the crack and enlarged the hole. I attached a life mask of myself, added paint, fabric, and paper mâché. A figure emerged—me, pensive and in symbolic blue. I had just ended a relationship with a man I loved. I called the piece A Hole Where Her Heart Used to Be. It was cathartic.

If that gourd had been perfect, I might never have even seen it. Someone else would probably have purchased it. And it was the crack and that hole that inspired me.

I’m so grateful for that imperfect gourd. It has been shown in several galleries, juried into a rather prestigious show, and won a blue ribbon. Today, she occupies a special place in my living room, a gentle reminder of a past love. She is still blue, but I am not.

 

 

 

 

Good-bye to France and Studio Faire

Exactly one week ago I returned from France where I spent twenty-five days, twenty-one of them at Studio Faire, my artist residency in Nérac. This week has given me time to process my journey.

There seems to be some confusion as to the nature of an artist residency—what it is; what it is not. Many people assumed I was enrolled in art lessons. Not so. For those of you who asked, “Exactly what do you do at an artist residency?” here is the definitive answer posted by Julia Douglas on her Instagram account. In it she quotes abstract artist Elspeth Pratt, “From my own personal experience and my many years of teaching, I have learned that giving advice is not a good idea. The truly important task is to provide the stimulus and opportunities for people to develop and follow their own line of inquiry.” That’s exactly what Julia and her husband, Colin Usher, provide at Studio Faire. There was an expectation that I would work on my project, but no pressure and no suggestions as to how to go about it.

While the intent of every artist residency program is similar, I’m sure that each one has its own unique atmosphere. Studio Faire’s is intimate, hosting three “creatives” at any one time—three people from diverse countries, following diverse creative paths.

Naomi Washer, a beautiful young poet/essayist from Chicago, and I arrived on the same day. Colin picked us up at the Agen train station and whisked us to Studio Faire where we met Julia and Johanna Naukkarinen, a lovely, young  photographer from Finland. A somewhat older me was there to illustrate my alphabet book for children.

Johanna left us after one week. Tears all around. And, then, Thérèse Rafter arrived, another young photographer—this time from Ireland. Different ages, different backgrounds, different mediums but, despite the differences, friendships took root, bonds were forged. From two to four weeks, we lived in an alternate universe, together, where our primary goal was to follow our muse without the day-to-day diversions of our regular lives. Each one of us stepped seamlessly into life at Studio Faire. Slipping out again was bittersweet. Someone else filled the spot we vacated, just as it should be, and yet…

As we bade good-bye to Johanna, I announced that I wasn‘t much of a crier and was not likely to cry when my departure time arrived. How wrong I was. On the day of my departure, I cried. In fact, I cried at the drop of a hat for the next twenty-four hours.

An alternate universe was my reality for three weeks. I met people who became friends and whom I will likely never meet again. Still, life is full of surprises. Never say never.  I am put in mind of the famous poem, Friends for a Reason, A Season, A Lifetime. The friends I made in Nérac may be friends who came into my life—briefly—for a reason, but I will remember each and every one for a lifetime. Merci beaucoup, Studio Faire!

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety Jig

After a hair-raising trip home (no details here). I am safely back in what I would formerly have described as my “real” world. However, I  now realize that every life experience is real while we are in it.  So, new description—I am back in my California world.

Nérac, with its surrounding villages and scenery, is beautiful. In fact, “It’s so beautiful,” became my mantra every time I took in a new vista, Now that I’ve returned, I realize that Sonoma County is beautiful, too, in its own way. While it does not have castles and chateaus, it does have redwood trees, the Pacific Ocean and vineyards.

I am back in my own home, my little kingdom, where I can create savory dishes in the kitchen with ingredients not available in France. I planned ahead and returned to a clean house with fresh sheets on my bed. So welcoming! My plants are blooming. I have the luxury of my own space. I live alone and I’ve always said I like it that way. Nevertheless, it feels a little emptier here than it did before.

The new school year is about to begin. And for those of you who keep saying, “I thought you retired,” I have not. I’m ready to take on a new bunch of little guys with special needs.  Instead of writing the great American novel (an early dream ), I’ve been working for over thirty years. with kids that fall outside the educational norm. It’s been a privilege and I’m not done, not yet.

Life goes on. I continue to work on my book, to support the Cloverdale Gallery, to paint, to teach, to spend times with my friends and family. And, oh, yes, I am researching artist residencies for summer 2020.

On La Baïse

By Tuesday, my time in Nérac was drawing to a close, but there was still time to create a few more memories. What could be more memorable than a trip down the tranquil La Baïse? Colin, Terese, Naomi and I set out on a two-hour ride down the river—or maybe we were going up. No matter, the river was so tranquil the trip became a meditative experience.  However, when it was time to manage a lock, we hustled.  Talk about memorable. It’s a strange feeling waiting for the gates to open, boating in, and watching the gates close behind you. We were in an enclosed area, endeavoring to keep the boat stationary as the water rose and rose. Finally, the gates at the other end opened and we drove through. It requires a key to open the gates, so we had to pull over and allow Colin to jump out and manage the lock. That left Terese, Naomi and me to navigate through the lock without Colin at the helm. Intrepid Terese drove the boat. We all pitched in holding the boat stationary whenever necessary—it’s called “grab and hold and hold.”  If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words are these pictures worth?…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colin at the helm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Therese takes over

 

 

 

 

 

A scenic shot

 

 

 

 

 

 

The abandoned building we explored on foot several weeks ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Naomi on the river

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the lock

 

 

 

 

 

Hanging on

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My art shot

 

 

 

 

Second lock, but we turned around at this point. I believe that’s my finger in the shot. The only photo of me–sort of–on the river.

 

 

 

 

 

Back to civilization

 

We saw beautiful homes, historic sites, ancient ruins, kingfishers, butterflies and what we think was an otter, although Colin prefers beaver. A lovely day, and we still had Tuesday Night Market to look forward to. But first, a nap. Zzzzzzzzz