Book to Read, Events, General, Readings

A President to Wish For

“The Greatest Hero,” —Walt Whitman

In this time of California fires, the Coronavirus quarantine and Trump, I’m desperate for revelation. When my son, Chris, lends me his voluminous biography of our 18th President, Ulysses S. Grant, written by Ron Chernow, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Hamilton and Washington, I open it and begin to read. Why not?

I get no further than the very first page when I realize I’m hooked, eager to learn what’s in the 1073 pages remaining.  It’s a bygone era, true, a vastly different life, yet familiar too. Reading about this American president I vaguely recognize from my high school history class, I’m surprised, excited even, to see that here’s someone, strangely enough, I can identify with now.  Someone I wish I knew.

Historical textbooks have portrayed  Ulysses S. Grant’s terms in office as marked by rampant corruption presided over by a president who spoke only on occasion, had  an alcohol problem, little charisma, and was simple-mindedly loyal to duplicitous “friends” in politics.  Reading GRANT however, I discover a singular, sensitive man born in the Midwest of pioneer stock, the “son of an incorruptible small-town braggart” and a silent, beloved mother, an expert horseman, a failure at business while brilliant at military maneuvers, who resigned from the army in disgrace. A foe of slavery.

The very first sentence introduces me to Grant who has just left the office of the Presidency.  It seems Ex-President Grant is unlike so many other presidents who rushed to publish their memoirs as soon as they departed the White House.  No, two-time President Ulysses S. Grant, High Military Commander of the Union Army, who defeated the renown Confederate General Robert E Lee to win the Civil War for Abraham Lincoln, “refused to trumpet his accomplishments in print” and was, in fact, too modest and unpretentious.  As Chernow describes it, Grant was a hero in spite of himself. He hated boasting about himself and his wartime accomplishments.

In the middle paragraph, Chernow fast-forwards to 1883 in post-Civil War New York City, where Grant, no longer president, has a crippling accident getting out of a taxi on a snowy night and ends up being a lifelong invalid with “excruciating pain” and the “agonizing onset of pleurisy coupled with severe rheumatism.”

And still on Page 1, Chernow hints at the financial success Grant longed for finally being realized at the end of his life. Ex-president Grant has partnered with a young brash swindler, Ferdinand Ward, and imagines himself a millionaire who will be able to at last provide support for Julia after he’s gone.  But then . . .and then . . .while. . .after.

Deep into it now, I experience a small, unassuming man who never wanted to go to West Point, who could fall asleep in the middle of a battle and wake up refreshed, and who had the love and loyalty of the huge Union Army of Lincoln. Who Frederick Douglass called, “the protector of my race.” Grant who sought freedom and justice for newly emancipated slaves both as Commander in Chief and later as President, fighting carpetbaggers and the newly formed Ku Klux Klan. There’s been recent controversy around Julia who grew up in a slave state, in a family with slaves, and Grant keeping one slave, William, for a year, which led to Grant’s statue being toppled in San Francisco. But, as I discover on p. 106, “when it came within his power, Grant . . . filed papers, to “hereby manumit, emancipate and set free said William from slavery forever.”

It was revelatory and comfortingly satisfying to me to learn intimate details of this far-sighted, faithful, loving husband and father whose lifelong love affair was with his four children and his wife, Julia, a fascinating, vivacious woman in her own right, who flourished even at the very end of what became his torturous life.

GRANT, a cliff hanger. And it all happens in fascinating detail, written in pristine language.  Somehow it became my life too, embodying my wish for a real president. Now.  For the time being, I’ll settle in with Ron Chernow’s GRANT, imagining the man behind the book. And I’ll vote for the next president on November 3rd. So much for wishing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book to Read, General, Journal

My book in a little, free library?

It’s raining (rare in California in May). I’m in Coronavirus quarantine, bleary-eyed in front of my computer. If I could just get away! I click on a Nextdoor post about a little, free library. I’ve enjoyed looking into these tiny libraries on corners in Palo Alto and Berkeley, in front yards in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa, but never saw one in my neighborhood.

Lily’s Little Free Library in Green Hills, Richmond, Ca

The Nextdoor post is an invitation by Sarah and her daughter to come by Lily’s Little Free Library, leave a book and take a book. Take a tiny succulent plant too. How generous, how inviting.

I consider all those boxes of books I have stacked in my office closet. I could easily gift one of those novels. But which? I begin to talk myself out of it. Would Jane Austen have left Pride and Prejudice at a little, free library? Would Charles Dickens leave Oliver Twist? Stephen King  Shawshank Redemption?  Maya Angelou and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?  Besides all my books  can be purchased at any bookstore and on Smashwords, Bookshop and my Writewords Press website.

Nevertheless, it’s an adventure into the unknown and an opportunity to take my dog, Laurel, for a walk. I’ll take a drive to this little, free library on Hilltop Green. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll find a good book to read.  I’m feeling better.

I’ve stuffed Spiral, An Epic Adventure in the Ancient Southwest in my purse and Laurel is looking at me eagerly from the back seat of my Honda Civic as I drive off in the rain to 1203 Greenway Drive,  Richmond, CA. The GPS says it’s 8 minutes by car.

Despite the GPS, I get lost in this housing development in the Richmond hills, quarantine-quiet this afternoon. Okay, just one more turn, one more dip in the road. There it is, perched on its pedestal across a manicured green park.

Holding Laurel on her leash, I open the little library doors and look through the books. A inconspicuous, grey-toned paperback catches my eye, a coming of age memoir, Ticket to Exile. The title is intriguing, ironic, unforgiving. I see the publisher is Malcolm Margolin of Heyday Books whom I greatly admire for his histories of Native Californians. The author, Adam David Miller seems familiar to me.

“Murray Library” is stamped on the cover and spine. That’s my last name!  Inside I discover “Murray Library, 166 East 5300, South Murray, Utah 84107”.  Is this an omen? A message? Serendipity?

The cover shows a man’s  silhouette  in front of a dark house shaded by looming trees; across the bottom is an image of a torn page from a notebook. I’m getting the feeling I know this writer.

Then I remember Adam David Miller, the African-American poet I met at the National Writers’ Union we both attended during the 1990s.  I recognize his photo in the frontispiece and am impressed with his bio. I remember Adam as a friendly face at numerous NWU writing events. Paging through his non-fiction story of growing up in the South during the Depression era, I note the quality of the careful prose, the formatting where each chapter is prefaced by a singular poem.

Suddenly the day turns brighter, the grass greener in the rain and I no longer am alone.

Lily’s Little Free Library Close Up

I squeeze Spiral between the other books on the top shelf of Lily’s Little Free Library.  Adam David Miller’s Ticket to Exile is in my purse now and a tiny succulent in my hand.

Laurel wags her tail, sniffing each tuft of grass as we go through the park.  I wonder how a little, free library might work out in my own front yard.

 

 

Concerned about the Quarantine? Click on Best Practices at Little Free Libraries During the Coronavirus Outbreak

 

Book to Read, General, Uncategorized, Upcoming Book

Writing in the time of Coronavirus

Elm Creek Doe photo by Rick Cavalieri

Reading is a gift to yourself. Writing is a gift too. I’ve been struggling to rewrite Deer Xing, a novel I began in the early ’90s, even before the Coronavirus quarantine overturned my daily life.

At my computer today, I experience deep silence and unfathomable time, feeling more pressure and less inspiration than ever to work on Deer Xing. I constantly interrupt myself to check updates on COVID-19, putting off editing the pages stacked in piles all over my desk.

At present Deer Xing is a long, knotted rope of words tied to an old vision. Frustrated by my old story, I imagine a new one shaped by this fearful epidemic, upending us all everywhere. I slash whole chapters, Xing-out characters, freeing me up to see everything—differently.

I take notes looking out my living room window at the four-way crossing on the corner of my emptied street, a concrete desert of unmoving silence, no one driving or walking by.

How to begin again? What would a deer see at a deer crossing?

Hungry Doe photo by Rick Cavalieri

I think of how my novel Dreamers starts in the green hills of Pittsburgh, PA seen through a young woman’s eyes who imagines Dad loves this city more than he could ever love her.

How Sundagger.net begins when a middle-age, single mother enters a sweat lodge in the Oakland Hills and grapples with Silicon Valley while making peace with ancient spirits in the Anasazi Southwest.

Spiral, the prequel to Sundagger.net, begins in a desert canyon in the Southwest, 12th century A.D, with a teenage girl searching for a hunter she cannot bear to lose.

And my latest, Pillow Prayers, that begins with a photo and a prayer: three women posing in a zen pillow stitchery with its brand new owner, Beth, who imagines a  star-twisted prayer, the first of many that follow.

 “Every book is a world.” says Gabrielle Zevin, author. In this time of quarantine and isolation, books open our minds and nurture our souls . You can buy Pillow Prayers, Dreamers, Spiral and Sundagger.net in ebook form on Smashwords.com. They can be read on Kindle, computer or another device. 

Buy now! Click on Smashwords.  Type “Margaret C. Murray” in the Search for books, authors, or series field to select ebooks.

 

Not satisfied with ebooks? Give yourself the gift of a physical book you can hold in your hands and turn the pages!  It’s so easy.
Buy here!

General, Uncategorized

Butterfly and a Song

Butterfly by Charr Crail

 

Butterfly by Charr Crail

Have you ever stopped to watch a butterfly’s soft flight of light and color leaving you with a feeling like falling in love?

Imagine that you can not only watch and feel the butterfly, but hear it as it flits from flower to flower.

Ithomiine butterfly photographed in Yasuni National Park, Ecuador.

Music artist Chris Goslow has written a song, Butterfly, that takes you to that place.

Every year Chris writes and records a new song on the occasion of his wife Charr Crail‘s  birthday.

Butterfly is the most recent of Chris’ songs to Charr, an artist and photographer.

Mysterious Butterfly Girl by Charr Crail

 

Listen to this home recording with Charr of her birthday song. Butterfly, words and music by Chris Goslow. Performed by Chris Goslow.

Chris Goslow, who is also my son, has accompanied me at my book readings, playing ’60s and ’70s popular music mentioned in Dreamers and Pillow Prayers as well as tracks from his albums Waterfall and The Cherry Rainbow Piano Experience.

Chris also recorded the soundtrack for the videos Stones of Chaco Canyon and My Trip to the War Gods for Sundagger.net and Spiral.  For more about Chris and me, see Music, Writing, and Working Together.

Who doesn’t love a good book? Give the gift of WriteWords Press books. It’s easy.  Buy here!

Events, From Heart to Paper Writing Workshop, General, Uncategorized

A flower is never opened with a hammer

“A flower is never opened with a hammer.”  — motto of From Heart to Paper Writing Workshops

I have been teaching From Heart to Paper Writing Workshops for over seven years here in the San Francisco East Bay and begin each session with this motto.

You’d think I’d be tired of it by now, considering it old and worn out. Yet each time I say “A flower is never opened with a hammer”,  I feel the power of the words, the exquisite truth of flowers, and the awe of seeing a flower open. I feel my heart leap with possibility— for myself and for my students who are like flowers too.

Writing workshops are upcoming in Winter and Spring, 2020.

Would you like to know more about From Heart to Paper Writing Workshops? Do you want to register? Please click here.

Events, From Heart to Paper Writing Workshop, General, Press Release

New Dates! Summer From Heart to Paper Writing Workshops

 

Calm cat writing on a red chair

Imagine you are the calm cat writing at your table. Now you can make this happen. Two summer From Heart to Paper Writing Workshops are coming up.

Click here for  workshop testimonials.

 From Heart to Paper Writing Workshop
Four  sessions:
Monday evenings:  6:30PM – 8:30PM
Dates: 7/8/19 – 7/29/19
Find out more.
To Register, click on the Writing is Easy button.

Plus a 5-Day Intensive 

 

From Heart to Paper Intensive Writing Workshop 
Five sessions:
Two Monday & Wednesday evenings:  6:30PM – 8:30PM
plus one Saturday morning: 10AM – 12PM
Dates: 8/5/19 – 8/17/19
Find out more. 

To Register, click on the Writing is Easy button.

Click here for recent From Heart to Paper workshop testimonials.

Expressing yourself in words is a wonder and a joy.

 —Margaret

General

Maisie is gone but we can still save her cousins, the wolves

Maisie on her rug

 

Maisie by the back fence

Almost three and a half years ago Maisie was picked up on a road by the El Sobrante local sheriff and taken to the Pinole Pound where I found her. I named my German Shepherd “Maisie” after the dark brown and black, blood-red Manzanita tree she reminded me of when I first saw her curled up in the pound. My dog and I were so close, so happy together.

Maisie and I worked together to save America’s wolves.  Wolves are in a dire situation with the Trump Administration intending to drop them from the Endangered Species List. This terrible blow would mean a return to the days when wolves were shot on site and killed in traps. Ignite Change and The Center for Biological Diversity are fighting back with their Call of The Wild campaign and my dog and I were part of it.

Maisie rolling over.

Last Saturday at the local Petfood Express the employees were petting Maisie and giving her doggie treats while I collected signed Save America’s Wolves letters to Trump. The store manager even offered to let us sit outside the store entrance with  posters, pens and forms.

Then the next day Maisie squeezed through the fence gate when I was not home. When I returned I found a note on my door from a California Highway Patrol officer. Maisie had been hit by a vehicle on the freeway entrance a mile away.

I am grieving and desolate that I could not save my dog. But I can keep working with Call of the Wild and fight to save her endangered cousins, America’s wolves. You can too.

Click here to urge Trump to Save America’s Wolves.

On Mt. Tamalpais, in front of a manzanita tree,  January, 2018

 

 

Maisie and I thank you.

 

 

 

 

Click here to  Save America’s Wolves.

General, Press Release, Readings, trip

Back from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Hola! I’m back in California now, missing San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Here I am with my new best friends at an art gallery extravaganza for the Day of the Dead.

Alas, we’re all a little worn out. If you’ve seen the Disney movie, Coco, you’ll have a good idea of the Day of the Dead festival. In San Miguel de Allende, I was very fortunate to be invited to stay with an old friend in her sister’s elegant home.

There’s nothing like a live performance of Mozart’s last work, Requiem, to make me feel holiness all around. I took this photo as I sat enthralled in the packed La Parroquia Cathedral in Centro, the center of town, on the night of The Day of the Dead. What a feeling of communion and comfort I experienced with a diverse, appreciative crowd.

A few days  later I had a book reading nearby at Garrison & Garrison Books that took place in a charming courtyard. I was surprised to have my audience’s rapt attention as I pointed out details from my Southwest Anasazi books, Spiral and Sundagger.net, with characters whose ancestors clearly would have come from Mexico. Wherever I could, I included actual Southwest artifacts that I’d learned of in my research. For example, in Spiral, Little Hawk, savors a small jar of chocolate that a park guide told me about during my 2015 trip to Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. The chocolate shows that Southwest Pre-Puebloans knew of, and traded, with ancient pre-hispanic Mexico as cocoa plants do not grow in the American Southwest.


My last day in Mexico I went on a day tour of ancient pyramid ruins with Albert Coffee, an expert tour guide in the region’s archeology, who spoke of recent findings of human and dog skeletons, a severed head carried hundreds of miles for final interment, and even a young elite, female warrior, all buried in the pyramid complex of Canada de la Virgen (Canyon of the Virgin). The name refers to a geode rock discovered at the site during excavation that broke, revealing an image of the Virgin Mary.

It’s thought there are other pyramids inside this visible one. That day my big accomplishment was to climb the tiered pyramid of the Canyon of the Virgin, just recently excavated. I made it all the way to the top! The rocks were huge and uneven, of sparking limestone. The pyramid itself was built to match the paths of the sun and moon across the sky, much in the same way as the Anasazi aligned their Great Houses in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Waiting by an iron bull sculpture for the tour van to pick me up.

 

I wonder if I’ll ever find words to describe my enchantment with “The Heart of Mexico”, as San Miguel de Allende is called.

 

 

 

If only I could sing like this bird I saw as I was walking along the path of a botanical garden in the hills outside the city.

—Yellow headed blackbird in the Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden.

Take a breath. Imagine the deep, quiet, heartbeat of stillness. Breathe in that feeling of Peace.

Happy Holidays!
—Margaret

Events, General, Readings

Art, Sacrifice & Prayer for the Day of the Dead

“life looks forward death looks back life looks forward death looks back life looks . .” 

Stitched Mouth by Charr Crail

I was planning a trip to Mexico during the week of the festival Dia de los Muertosthe Day of the Dead to see my friend, Rose, when a small bookstore in San Miguel de Allende, whom I had contacted, offered to host a book event for me. Great! I chose Art, Sacrifice & Prayer for the event title because these are such powerful themes in Hispanic Indigenous Mexican culture and so much part of the Day of the Dead.

Preparing for my trip, I go over selections from my novels to read. I expect to read from my new novel, Pillow Prayers. But what about my previous Southwest novels of magic realism, Sundagger.net and Spiral, with characters who could have been ancestors of the families and tourists who celebrate Dia de los Muertos in San Miguel de Allende?

I thought of the time, the spring of 1999, when I went car camping to the ancient ruins of the Four Corners, which had been a dream of mine from childhood. My boyfriend drove his car, so all the way across Northern California, Nevada, and Utah I was free to write, taking voluminous notes about the astounding landscape I saw outside my window.

We drove through the technicolor desert of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments, 4,000 years of Native American culture one archeologist called “an outdoor laboratory of our history on earth”. I saw not just potsherds, petroglyphs and pictographs but also the world’s richest deposit of dinosaur bones, fossils 75 million years old, including 25 species of newly discovered dinosaurs. Who left such mysterious art behind? What sacrifices were made to create it? Was this religious art? What did it mean to the artists?

At every historical site of these ancestral Puebloan people,named ‘Anasazi’ (enemy ancestors)  by the Navajo, I scribbled in my notebook. My mind was racing with images for my next novel.

We reached Chaco Culture National World Heritage Site in New Mexico, the land sacred to the Pueblo tribes. I saw the Great House, Pueblo Bonito, the largest ruin in North America, five stories high with 600 rooms and 300 kivas, bigger than the Roman Coliseum. It had been built along the axis of the rising sun at the equinoxes. Archeo Astronomy it is called, the study of language in the architecture, building in relation to the stars.

The circular kivas with their foot drums, benches, pottery, and stone-lined vaults below ground, fascinated me.

I learned of the sun dagger phenomenon on Fajada Butte that I could see from the campground, jutting out of the flat desert canyon. On only one day a year, the summer solstice, the sun pierces a carved spiral hidden at the top of this butte. Who carved this timepiece, matching art and stone to the heavens? What did it mean?

Climbing the North Mesa, I stopped by a lopsided tiny house without a roof sinking into the sand. The entrance way suggested a crooked smile while the two window openings peered across time at me with heavy-lidded eyes. A sad-faced house, yet sweet. I imagined a story of sacrifice, art and prayer. Thus Sundagger.net began, a story of one family, two worlds, many lifetimes.

Back home in California, I worked from voluminous notes describing the remains of corn husks, blankets made of turkey feathers and dog hair, silver frogs on jewelry, pottery with parrot images, and much more.

A few years later I wrote the prequel, Spiral.  I took another trip, this time by myself, following the same journey I had my characters in Spiral  take, traveling North to Chimney Rock National Monument in Colorado. I camped beneath the farthest outlier of the Chaco Culture, where an exact, but much smaller replica of Pueblo Bonito was built in 1084 AD and then abandoned soon after. Why? How?

Today, preparing for my reading in San Miguel de Allende, I skim books, marking scenes that show my characters struggling with desire, making art, sacrificing for their dreams, inspired by their prayers.  Here’s what I’ve come up with for now.

One family, two worlds, many lifetimes

 

In Sundagger.net, Sara, a single mother, comes to an Oakland sweat lodge after 9/11 to pray for her missing son, but sees an ancient, shocking vision instead.

 

Magic realism and epic adventure in the American Southwest

 

In SpiralWillow abandons her sacred pots in Chaco Canyon to take her son Little Hawk on a dangerous journey where he discovers a circle of skeletons in a tower.

 

 

 

In Pillow Prayers, Love Ruined, Love Found, After the Summer of Love, street artist Ruth finds a place to paint in a zen pillow stitchery in San Francisco, befriending skeptical grad student, Lonnie and the stitchery owner, Beth, maneuvering toward tragedy.

 

 

 

Art, Sacrifice & Prayer
Monday, November 5, 2018.  4:00 – 6:00 pm
GARRISON & GARRISON BOOKS
Hidalgo 26
Centro
San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato
37700

Book to Read, General

Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart

Traditional Art of the Congo

Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken HeartBlood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart by Tim Butcher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“”A masterpiece,” famed novelist John Le Carre writes about Tim Butcher’s journalistic travel memoir and I agree. Prepare for your heart to be wrenched when you read Blood River, A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart. But you may not notice it in the excitement and danger of the ride. There’s the magnificent and ominous Congo River landscape, the present terror, the valor of the victimized native people, the greed of the exploiters of the river’s resources (native and colonizers alike) and the intrepid European explorers who struggled to tame the river.

In Blood River, Tim Butcher attempts to recreated Henry Morton Stanley’s journey of the 1870s. Sponsored by the New York Herald as an advertising stunt, Stanley is famous for having found the mythic Scottish explorer, David Livingstone, who went missing in Africa the late 1860s while looking for the origin of the Nile River. Stanley wanted to be the first to chart the Congo from its origin in the heart of Africa westward to the Atlantic and he ultimately–and at great cost–succeeded.

In 2004, Tim Butcher, likewise a professional journalist (Britain’s Daily Telegraph), is determined to take that same journey. After extensive, obsessive research, he set out from the Congo’s eastern border in a spirit of adventure and calculated misgivings, ignoring the fact that everyone he talked to told him he was crazy. He describes his travel by motorcycle, dug out canoe, steamboat, helicopter, plane and on foot with a precise, detail-rich journalist’s eye.
Through his research, Tim Butcher was well aware of Africa’s terrible legacy of slavery and exploitation of its riches, but he wasn’t prepared for the day-to-day fear, the terrorist attacks forcing the Congolese to flee to the bush as a way of life, a jungle that ate up the railroad tracks, thriving riverfront cities of the ’50s collapsed in corruption and decay, and a country–maybe the only country on the earth– going backwards and retreating from progress into the primitive where there is “no memory for justice”–all punctuated with cell phones, abundant ammunition, jets and extravagantly wealthy internationals in gated communities rising out of the rain forest.

Along with Butcher, the reader tries to make sense of his life-threatening encounters where he is saved by local Congolese, foreign missionaries, and UN workers. We learn much about how the Congo played a dominant role in the slave trade on the west coast by the Portuguese and even earlier on the east coast by the Arab traders, how the colonizers tried and failed to harness the huge river full of cataracts, how Joseph Conrad and Barbara Kingsolver memorialized the river’s heart of darkness, how Katherine Hepburn kept a journal during the filming of African Queen, and how the UN functioned in an ivory tower of antiseptic efficiency.

Tim Butcher writes about disease, murder, enslavement and the onslaught of the encroaching jungle. Ultimately his experience is “relentlessly punishing”. Traveling on the Blood River, the reader too experiences the breakdown of civilization, with human suffering beyond what we can imagine living our First World lives. Truly, this is a terrifying vision of the “Last World”, where no one can survive.

View all my reviews