Events, General, Readings

Road Trip to the War Gods


I was on the seventh day of my road trip. After days of driving and camping—interspersed by a stay in Flagstaff with my friend Joyce—I had  finally arrived at Chimney Rock, Colorado, the site of my upcoming novel, Spiral.

Chimney Rock at first sight
Chimney Rock at first sight

I had been working on Spiral, a prequel to Sundagger.net, for five years now and I just had to go see for myself.  I had to take the same pilgrimage my characters Willow and her son, Little Hawk, take after they flee their home in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, and set out for Chimney Rock, the furthest outlier of Chaco culture.

Driving from California on Highway 40 to Flagstaff and from there to New Mexico, I was intent on first spending a few nights at Chaco Canyon World Heritage Site where Spiral begins.

The Pre-Puebloans (otherwise known as the Anasazi, a name given to them by the Navajo, meaning “enemy ancestors”) likely came the same way, from the South.

Heading North to Chacra Mesa
Heading North to Chacra Mesa

Like me, these ancient migrants would have passed by the same red rock mesas. They too would be inspired, awed, by the deep color of the high desert, the vast vistas and endless sky.

Maybe they too were anticipating a great spectacle–those ceremonies in honor of  solstices and equinoxes  held in the Great Houses of Chaco Canyon.

Bumping along on an unpaved dirt “washboard” road, I slowly drove through the Navajo Reservation, stopping my car in front of the only sign for 23 miles:

Bumping along on the unpaved dirt "washboard" road into Chaco Canyon National Monument
Rough road into Chaco Canyon World Heritage Cite

 

ROUGH ROAD
May be Impassable
Travel at Your Own Risk

The ancient people would have experienced rough travel without cars, wagons, wheels, horses or any other means of transportation.

A thousand years ago, this same road would likely have been full of people migrating to and from Chaco to witness the sun’s return or thrill at the lunar alignment.

 Fajada Butte, Chaco Canyon
Fajada Butte, Chaco Canyon

What a surprise when I turned a rocky bend and saw Fajada Butte. How close and massive it seemed from the dirt road, like a cathedral carved from sandstone.

I’d been to Chaco Canyon two times before but never approached it from the South.

I felt a strange kinship with this great rock.

At Gallo Campground in Chaco, the wind blew my tent away before I even got it secured in the ground. With the help of the campground host (from Vallejo, Ca!), I tied it to heavy metal rings. I slept that night surrounded by mesa walls, greasewood and blowing sage.

South Gap in Chaco seen from Pueblo Bonito

The Pre-Puebloans would have come through the South Gap into the Canyon. On the far side of the gap are more than 50 pit houses.  Are they “motels”  the migrants camped in while at Chaco?

Across Chaco Wash is Pueblo Bonito, the grandest of the Great Houses, where I stood while taking this photo. Debbie, the interpretive ranger who took me on a tour of Pueblo Bonito, said the arriving visitors likely might have been thrilled by the noisy celebration, the singing in many languages, dancing and music from flutes, conch shells, rattles, foot drums and more.

So many people to see the show! Was it like our rock concerts? Disneyland ? Or like High Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral? Who knows? The only evidence are ruins and potsherds.  There’s so much mystery here.

Leaving Chaco Canyon reluctantly (and missing the Full Moon ceremony), I drove to Navajo Lake  where I camped a few days and then headed northeast over the Colorado border to Chimney Rock.

And now, finally, I’ve arrived. Even from so far away on the road, I am repelled first sighting the mountain. It’s chilling just seeing bulbous Companion Rock and high narrow Chimney Rock on a dark mountain of chert and lava rock.  I’m amazed at how close my feelings are to the atmosphere of terror pervading Spiral that Willow is so desperate to flee.

Post Office boxes along the road
Post Office boxes along the road to Chimney Rock

Still, looking out of my car window, I take comfort in all the mailboxes along the road, proof that ordinary people live beneath this mountain that appears so isolating and ominous seen from afar.

After setting up my tent at Ute Campground, I drive to the park entrance and learn I’m not even permitted to go up Chimney Rock alone.  So instead I and five other tourists take a fascinating guided tour with Wayne, an interpretive guide and volunteer.

Wayne, Chimney Rock  guide, talking to tourist with walking stick
Chimney Rock guide, talking to a tourist in red shirt

 

Today Chimney Rock is the powerful landmark and spiritual center for the Pueblo People–the Taos, Acoma, Zuni, Hopi, Tewa and more.

The two towers signify the Twin War Gods of the Taos Pueblo who slay monsters to help their People. The war gods are also revered by the Navajo who know them as Monster Slayer and Born-for-Water.

 War Gods?  Yes, of course!

After my climb to the top, I understand why.

At the summit!
As far as I could go!

 

Dear Diary, Events, General

Dear Diary #7—An Open Door

“The right ending is an open door you can’t see too far out of.”–Michael Ondaatje.

Looking Southwest from Chimney Rock, CO
Looking Southwest from Chimney Rock, CO

Dear Diary,

It’s time for me to take the trip to Chimney Rock, Colorado where Spiral, the prequel to Sundagger.net, is set. I have to do it in order to write the ending—the right ending. It’s no accident that you, Dear Diary, a decrepit yellow fifty year-old notebook, end with a trip too.

That September of 1964 when I returned from my summer in Provincetown, MA I hadn’t added a single word to my diary or to the 25 pages of a novel I took with me and planned to write. How would l know all those words were not to be abandoned but revived.

There are no entries about leaving home in my diary. Dad must have driven me to the bus station. My mother would have stayed home, crying angry tears, shunning me. She didn’t approve of me going to that godforsaken place, Provincetown. Did I even hug her goodbye? Did she push me away? Did I thank my father for driving me to that dingy Greyhound terminal in the smoky bowels of downtown Pittsburgh? I know I took a brown suitcase because I remember lugging it back home from the airport on two streetcars and a bus at the end of that summer.

My trip didn’t begin pleasantly or easily. I went with Maxine and Carole, fraternal twins, friends of a friend. I can see the small lights over my seat on the Greyhound Bus that night we left. I sat next to Maxine, the older and more gregarious twin. We were on our way to Providence, Rhode Island to transfer to another bus to Cape Cod.

On the bus I would have felt chastened, though stubborn and determined, free. Maybe also frantic, an imposter, with only a few hand-written pages in my suitcase to mark my identity as a writer.  I didn’t know the twins well either. Maxine offered me the paperback she’d brought, a fey, quixotic novel of Anias Nin who I’d never heard of before; Anais proved a seemingly perfect companion through the unknown doorway.

That summer I worked as a counter girl at Howard Johnson’s, renting an old, wooden two-story summerhouse on the outskirts of P-town with the twins. I remember once looking out the smudged window above a double bed I shared with a different twin each week, realizing I wasn’t going to write a single sentence here. I considered throwing my writing out.

Map of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
Map of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

How different is the trip I’m planning now, how different and yet the same. I’ve been frightened of and yet determined to travel from Chaco Canyon, N.M. to Chimney Rock, CO where Spiral takes place since I first started writing the prequel five years ago. Chimney Rock is the furthest settlement of the Anasazi culture from Chaco.

I’ve discovered much fascinating research, e.g, light-talking. One of the best resources is Greg Childs’, House of Rain. In this book the journalist Childs replicates the migration route the Anasazi travelled from Chaco north to Chimney Rock, east to Mesa Verde and the Utah Canyonlands, and then south through Arizona and back toward Mexico.

I can’t decide which route I should take from Northern California –going North or South from the Bay Area. I haven’t camped for five years and I’m not talking R/V camping but a 2-person tent where the 2nd spot is usually reserved for my 12-year-old Shepherd. But Ele won’t be coming this time. She’s just too frail and elderly.

When I follow the Anasazi migration route in my 2005 Honda Civic, my manuscript of 300 pages will be right next to me in my front seat. I’ll be scribbling, taking notes from the points of view of my characters, Willow and her son, Little Hawk (who becomes RoHnaan from Sundagger.net). They walk the nearly 100 miles  from Chaco Canyon to Chimney Rocks, following the Anasazi light-talking mounds, small hills in the high desert where the Anasazi signaled messages from great distances using fire and mica mirrors.

 

Inside a Chaco House
Inside a Chaco House

At the Chaco Canyon National Historical Park campground, I’ll  face the cracked mesa ridge where Willow waits impatiently for her lover Water Hunter. I’ll walk along Chaco Wash and talk to the crows like she does after Water Hunter abandons her. What would she have seen climbing up Fajada Butte after the despotic Elders to take back her infant son? I’ll see her leave Chaco with Little Hawk years later, sneaking away with a loaded travois and a stray dog.

Their route along the North Road across the desert is gone, just gullies, canyons today. How does the wind feel at night? Will I see the sky crowded with millions of stars that the 12th century Anasazi studied too? Or the bludgeoned skulls of the ancestors that traumatize Little Hawk and his dog inside the Salmon and Aztec ruins?

From Durango in southwestern Colorado, I’ll look for a narrow four mile road leading up to Chimney Rock National Monument.  Can I see the Piedras River from the top of the mountain?  Watch the Standing-Still Moon rise between the two jagged promontories?

 

Atop this high, desolate settlement, I’ll surely walk along the First Ridge Mesa to the two stone towers. Like Willow and Little Hawk, I’ll be anxious about seeing Grandmother after all those years she was imprisoned in the tower.

Last Entry
m Last Entry

 

Dear Diary, I have reached the end of you. After my trip to Provincetown that first time, I returned to the cocoon of  my junior year at Carnegie-Mellon. From my last entry, September 23, 1964, I see how my spirits are rising “bright and quick” as I realize there was work to be done and I could do it now. Back so long ago I gave myself a job that I still have today. That first journey opened the door.

I just have to open the door a little further, take that trip.

Standing Still Moon, Chimney Rock, CO
Standing Still Moon, Chimney Rock, CO

 

For more about my experiences in Provincetown:

The Poet & The Baby

Admiration/Envy

Events, General, Press Release

Teaming up with my son: Books & Music Bundle

Chris and I at the Authors' Booth, CA State Fair
Chris and I at the Authors’ Booth, CA State Fair

Recently my eldest son and music artist Chris Goslow and I talked about putting together a special gift bundle that is truly “all in the family.” We decided to offer a book/album package at a big savings. For a limited time,  you can purchase and enjoy my books, Sundagger.net and Dreamers, along with Chris’ albums, Waterfall and I Love You .

Click HERE to see more about the mother & son bundle.

In the short interview below, you can see how Chris and I share much in common creatively and are able to work well together.

1. What does this mother-son bundle mean to you?

Sundagger.net, One Family, Two Worlds, Many Lifetimes

Margaret: From as far back as I can remember, I have been writing away at my novels and my son has been playing music. The idea of presenting my fiction and my son’s music together in a fun way is just delightful, even magical.

Chris: Personally, it’s very satisfying for me to support my mom’s creative accomplishments while sharing my own.

Margaret: Three years ago Chris and I offered a Holiday Mother-Son Bundle for the first time, and I loved that experience. I was living up North in Sonoma County and would take the inscribed book and CD packages to a rural post office in Graton, CA driving along beside the apple orchards and vineyards in the green, winter mist. It was so fulfilling to me; I felt one with nature, the season, and my writing life. Back then we each had only one product, but now we both are offering two artistic works–four altogether.  That’s a real achievement!

2. Talk about your working relationship with each other.  Do you often help each other when it comes to creative projects, and if so, how?

Chris: I remember being in grade school and hearing my mom talk about wanting to publish her books. I also had my own creative dreams, so for both reasons it was an especially important issue to me.  Our creative paths have had a lot of parallels, even though obviously I have been focused on music, and she has been focused on writing.  Then again, I also am a writer, and she loves music.  In fact, the main character in Dreamers is also a musician.

Margaret: Yes, I made Annie in Dreamers the violinist I wished I was when I was taking violin in grade school! As for how Chris and I work together,  this year we started having a Monday work meeting via Skype. As usual with most of our collaborations, Chris came up with the idea. The original objective was to discuss our two different teaching careers since we are also both teachers, but we ended up talking about all the parts of our writing and music lives. For example, I’m typing my answers to this interview Q&A today during our Monday Morning Skype Meeting while at the same time talking and seeing Chris on my computer screen! Isn’t that magical!

Dreamers, A Coming of Age Love Story of the '60s

3. Do you find it surprising that you are both artists?  And did you always know you could work together this well?

Chris: It’s not surprising.  It’s just part of my life, always has been.  I always felt an affinity with my mom and a closeness with her as well as a desire to help her be happy.  So the seeds of our working together go back a long way.

Margaret: No, it’s not surprising to me that Chris and I are both artists. The surprising part–the amazing part– is how necessary, how life-changing Chris is to my writing life, and how much a difference he makes. Sharing my writing life with him a practice I don’t want to ever stop. Honestly, it’s astonishing to experience how all my children work together with me and each other.  Chris’ brother, Jonas, is a performing artist too as well as a consummate web designer. Jonas designed this website as well as my Sundagger.net website.  Their older sister is a singer and teacher; Annemarie, with her eagle reader’s eye, was my first copy editor.

4. It’s clear that family is important to both of you.   How does family influence your creativity? For example, do you write about your family, are any of your stories (or songs) based family experiences?

Waterfall, Original Piano Music by Chris Goslow

Chris: Family influences a lot of my art over the last few years.  In fact, my entire I Love You album came about from songs I wrote for my wife, Charr Crail, or about our relationship.  Even my first album Waterfall included mostly piano pieces I originally wrote the first year I met my wife, specifically after she asked me for music that she could use with photography slideshows she was making. So in a sense, both albums are an outgrowth of our relationship.

Margaret: Pretty much all my life I thought I would never write about my family because they were just too ordinary! Maybe that’s why I was so attracted to the ancient Anasazi of the Southwest, the characters in the “old world story” of Sundagger.net. But still I definitely drew from my own experience, using my own family as building blocks. And clearly, Dreamers is laid out against the backdrop of my life growing up in Pittsburgh, PA during the upheaval of the Civil Rights era. I stood on all the street corners the main characters, Thomas and Annie, did. Each contains a description, a voice, or an attitude of my own memories of my family, friends and lovers. Even the dog, Lucky, is based on my sister’s dog!  All the music mentioned in Dreamers are pieces I played or loved myself.

I LOVE YOU by Chris Goslow
I LOVE YOU by Chris Goslow

Buy Our Bundle!

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Diary, General, Journal

Dear Diary #5—Dying for Approval

Dear Diary,

The Scull of Persistence by Charr Crail
The Scull of Persistence by Charr Crail

 

It’s beyond imagining. You would never believe it. I just received an email from my favorite high school teacher praising my novel, Dreamers.

Sister Mary ___ (Alas, she hasn’t yet given me permission to use her actual name) is a nun in the Sisters of Charity religious order. She was only twenty five or so when she became my English teacher. She was funny, smart, and even prettier than the character Amy Adams played in that telling movie, Doubt.

Sister Mary loved literature like I did.  Once I found her after school sitting at her desk next to the window looking out on Sacred Heart Church. She was reading Shakespeare’s MacBeth, in another world, transfixed. I hated to interrupt her but of course I did. I remember she used to pound the floor with her little black shoe as she recited the poetry of Langston Hughes. Yes, Sr. Mary was both wonderful and frightening.

Her email of a week ago flows over me like honey. How thankful am I that she has had the persistence to stay in touch. What a different young woman I would have become back in 1962 if I had carried Sr. Mary’s words in my pocket. At seventeen I would have done anything for her approval. That small Irish-faced nun with twinkly eyes framed by her black Sisters of Charity bonnet held the keys to my fragile self-worth.

Writer with closed mouth
Stitched Mouth by Charr Crail

No, you won’t find anything about Sr. Mary in this diary. By the time I left high school, I had relegated her to the dustbin with all my other memories like old dolls turned ragged, ignored. I desperately wanted to leave everything connected with childhood behind.

Entering college, I put on a dark mask of disillusioned doom, the pose I thought I needed to become a serious author. I spent entire days attending classes without saying a word,  my mouth stitched tight with fear and resistance.  I remember the sensation of walking from class to the streetcar stop on a cold November day and not being able to breathe. By my sophomore year, I was literally dying for approval.

But things change. In my junior year, I signed up for Creative Writing, Playwriting, Poetry, English History and China & the Far East, classes that I found I loved.  Even better, I started to write. A September 1964 entry describes my first attempt at writing a novel.

“The excitement of writing is nerveless; my words are suspended. I have never felt so peace-like. Everything is warm and deeply comfortable to me.”

Hobbyhorse was the title of my first “book”, a florid stream-of-consciousness describing the up and downs of two young lovers told from alternating points of view, a style I just realize I duplicated in Dreamers. In Hobbyhorse, each chapter seesawed back and forth, the characters sifted like fool’s gold from the sluice box of my first experience falling in love.

Suddenly I felt joyful, happy to be alive. My diary for November 12, 1963 reads,  “I don’t even try to deaden my joy. It is slow-moving, calm.

The writer in me
Pondering by Charr Crail

And then another miracle! I found a teacher willing and eager to read my work. Dr. John Hart, English professor from Yale, was a small, thin man with a pronounced limp. Walking across the Tech campus, I’d stop to greet him, He’d be dragging his leg, his jacket blowing in the wind. He had a pale Irish face with a big squashy red nose. A few strands of light hair fell across his brow as he answered my questions in a quiet dreamy way. Each week I’d give him my chapters, typed double-spaced and folded lengthwise. He’d put them in his coat pocket. Oh! how eagerly I pondered his response.

__________________

Excerpt from Sr. Mary’s email:

Congratulations on your beautiful novel, Dreamers!  I love it!  You’ve caught so well the mood of the Sixties—the glories as well as the mistakes, the feelings, the actions, the many causes, and, yes, the dreams.  Your work is excellent, as you must know from the many descriptions on the book cover.  I especially like that by Vicki Weiland.  Your writing is indeed “taut, nuanced, sophisticated, and multi-layered.”  I’m sending your novel to my oldest niece, a psychologist who will understand well the beauty and the anguish of the sixties. I’ll let you know how she reacts.  Meanwhile, I just want you to know how proud I am of you and your work.  You’re in my prayers, now and always.  God bless you—and all those dear to you.

Artwork by Charr Crail
www.charrcrail.com

Events, General, Readings

New & Dazzling

Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail

New from WriteWords Press

A dazzling travel memoir… 

 

 

EAST, A Woman on the Road to Kathmandu
EAST, A Woman on the Road to Kathmandu

EAST: A Woman on the Road to Kathmandu

by  Shelley Buck

 

 

I’m so happy to be offered the chance to introduce Shelley Buck at her book launch for EAST at Diesel bookstore in Oakland. I am her publisher, after all! And what a wonderful high-flying ride I’ve had helping Shelley to bring EAST to print, like watching a kite in the wind.  Shelley will be reading selections from EAST, recreating her travels (of the mind and spirit as well as body) from Oakland through Europe, Greece, Turkey, Iraq and beyond.   I will also be reading from my novel, Dreamers.  It would be great to see you there too.

Book Launch  at Diesel Bookstore

Sunday, October 13, 3 PM

5433 College Ave.

Oakland, CA 94618

707-829-1181

Admission Free

Shelley Buck, Author
Shelley Buck, Author

East is the true story of one woman’s overland journey across Asia. Inspired by a book purchased at Fred and Pat Cody’s legendary bookstore on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue, Shelley Buck took off alone in 1972 on a journey she hoped would take her from England to India and Nepal by public transit. East chronicles that journey and Shelley’s emergence into adulthood.

Following her return to California, Shelley Buck became a founding editor of the feminist news syndicate, Her Say, now archived at Harvard. Shelley currently edits ePícaro.com—an online journal of travel narratives. When not breakfasting with white-faced monkeys in Costa Rica, or hitchhiking through the Khyber Pass, Shelley lives with her family in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains.

EARLY PRAISE FOR EAST

“She captures a bygone time and place when young people took to the road, crossing the Bosphorus and then the steppes and deserts of the Middle East, to the Indus Valley and the Himalayan foothills beyond, often by public transport. Buck’s unique vantage point as a female traveler who refused to be deterred by those who said she couldn’t or shouldn’t travel on her own across lands now long-closed by war, makes for riveting reading.” —Judith Pierce Rosenberg, author of A Swedish Kitchen

“A compelling read, sensitively written by an informed and courageous woman. I felt that I was taken along, tucked inside her backpack.”—Nancy Pringle, Eureka, California

For more, see www.shelleybuck.com.

EAST Book Launch @ Diesel Bookstore
Sunday, October 13, 3 PM
5433 College Ave.
Oakland, CA 94618
707-829-1181

General, Journal

Admiration/Envy

Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod
Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod

Feeling both envy and admiration, I picked up the novel, The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard.

Annie Dillard and I have some things in common. Both she and I grew up in Pittsburgh on the East Side. As a teenager, I tutored a 7th grader in the exclusive girls’ school she attended several blocks away from mine. I probably passed her in the halls on my way to the library. I never knew about her until I read her memoir, American Childhood, A Writing Life, twenty years later. Needless to say I was subsumed with envy at her publishing success. I also admired her insights about being a writer-girl in Pittsburgh during the ’50s. There’s at least one more connection we have. The main character in my second novel, Dreamers, A Love Story of the ’60s, is called Annie too.

A story of marriage on Cape Cod after WWII, The Maytrees is also a diorama of Provincetown, Massachusetts, the iconic artist’s colony where Lou and Toby Maytree’s marriage takes place and where the land itself splashes over the pages like surf crashing on the shores of Race Point.

Marriage is not exactly in one’s mind when thinking of Provincetown, the ultimate Rave party of artist colonies by the sea. I came to P-town on the Greyhound Bus at nineteen, my first summer away from Pittsburgh, and got a job as a waitress at Howard Johnson’s. The second time I came was five years later when I became a writing fellow in the acclaimed Fine Arts Work Center.  There were seven of us in 1969, two women and five men, the most famous of who won a Pulitzer Prize and became US Poet Laureate. It was in P-town that I began writing the novel that turn out to be Dreamers.

Pilgrims  Monument in the center of Provincetown
Pilgrims Monument in the center of Provincetown

Sunrise over the ice blue ocean, snow covering the dunes, the curled hooked spit of Cape Cod; it’s all there in The Maytrees. The writing itself is luminous. Dillard’s style simple, yet exotic, as befits a naturalist. Each sentence seems unique and cultured, pristine and studied. The lack of quotation marks, just dashes instead, a convention popular abroad, adds to the foreign flavor.

That winter I spent in P-town I might have met Dillard’s characters, the reclusive sometime artist, Lou, and Toby Maytree, poet and house mover. Many couples befriended me and the other young artists. Eccentric, alluring, stylish, cultured writers and painters with their boyfriends, girlfriends, wives and husbands greeted me at those parties they held, full of drugs and alcohol, patched with celebrities. I attended many on those sea-blown nights. How I envied those couples arm in arm and yearned to get close to them. I envied the literary celebrities too. If Annie Dillard had been there, she and I could have been friends.

For sure I met Deary, Lou’s best friend in The Maytrees, who slept among the beach peas and had a degree from MIT. Deary who makes random pronouncements like, “Every place you injure on your body grows more alive,” which Lou takes seriously.

Then there’s the marriage itself, pure and simple like the acclaimed white dunes around P-town, like those welcoming couples inviting me into their well-lit, warm, houses so close to the beach.

What Toby loves most about Lou is her laugh (as she rarely talked or shared her thoughts). What Lou loved were Toby’s hands, his simple directness and their sex together–Lou describes herself as “shipwrecked on the sheets”. Much to envy and admire in that!

But then, seemingly out of nowhere, catastrophe happens–the usual adultery, abandonment, and betrayal, with no going back. The wild, blue blood, gregarious Deary goes off with Toby, breaking up the marriage. But there’s no fighting or discussion, no tears or rancor. Just plain old numbing pain for Lou and benign dismay for Toby.

Avoiding the comfortable, the Wi-Fi tech-driven twenty-first century life, the fabled bars of Provincetown and old friends is what Lou aspires to after the marriage dissolves. As for Toby and Deary, they’re driven to build a successful home contracting business in Maine. But it’s not over, not yet.

Provincetown beach with birds
Provincetown beach with birds

If marriage is the message for the couple, it’s rolled up in a bottle you have to search for.

All in all Annie Dillard, a naturalist as well as writer, has spawned a rare, gentle deviant to the marriage of two minds, embracing an often hidden truth that any good marriage ends in old age and death. I admire her for that and for telling the story in such a rare way.

I left Provincetown the end of that winter back in 1970, though I was invited to return to the Fine Arts Work Center for a second year. Now I can see how good that might have been for me and my writing life. But then I was running too fast, frightened of being exposed as unfit to be a writer, and trembling for success in spite of it. In Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees, I get to go back again and enjoy it all.

Dear Diary, General

Holding my violin, watching the movie

A character can haunt you without you even knowing it, even when the story is finished, even after you’ve written it off! That’s what happened to me with Annie, the main character of Dreamers, after I saw The Late Quartet, a masterpiece of a movie about a string ensemble.

I wish I still had my violin. I just want to hold it.

The “late quartet “of the movie title is Beethoven’s Opus 131, String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, composed in 1826, one year before he died. In the movie, it is being prepared for presentation by the world-renown (fictional) Fugue Quartet, now in their 25th year playing together.

If the first violin part is the heart of the piece, the second part is its nerves, its soul. Robert, the second violinist, played brilliantly by actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, offhandedly explains to a woman he’s soon to seduce that it’s not a competition thing between him and the first violinist, Daniel, just different. But in fact Robert lusts after the First Chair. He’s tired of Daniel, played by Mark Ivanir, calling all the shots for the Fugue’s performances. I can understand that.

I too played the violin, taking lessons from 4th through 9th grade.  While pretending to practice diligently, I was actually reading novels. Up in my bedroom, my door closed tight, I sat on the edge of my bed mindlessly and repetitively sawing on my violin while reading books, looking over the moving bow, turning the pages one after the other between scales. I never was part of a string quartet, but after being stuck in the second violin section of the Wilkinsburg Junior Symphony for three years, I was thrilled to move over to the first violin section in 8th grade.

This all comes back to me now with Beethoven in the background. Watching the movie, I experience the grief of the cellist, Peter, the oldest Fugue member, played by Chris Walken, upon learning he has Parkinson’s Disease; the anger of Juliette, the violist, played by actress Catherine Keener, discovering Robert has betrayed her; the longing of Daniel for young love (who just happens to be Juliette and Robert’s daughter) and the passion of Robert for his marriage and his art. All together the quartet unleashes amazing, ferocious and yet gentle music in the high artscape of New York City, a place that Annie would have understood. After all she fled there like I did too.

But Annie would not have blown off her practice sessions. And she would surely not have remained with the second violins as long as I did. I loved the music, but honestly, it stayed in the background while I concentrated on fashion and style. Before each junior symphony concert, I spent hours getting ready, ironing my short, tight, black wool “orchestra” dress with the pearl buttons down the bodice, attaching my stockings to those cold metal clasps hanging from my new garter belt, slipping into my black, pointy high heels. I couldn’t wait for that moment when we all walked on stage holding our instruments, when the audience became silent and the conductor, Mr. Reichenfeld, put up his baton. Out came the elegant soloists, young musicians like myself, whom I envied for their inscrutable, focused faces and those perfect notes they played.

In his glowing review, the late, great movie critic Roger Ebert comments that A Late Quartet is a unique movie in that it actually shows professionals at work. And the way I imagine it, Juliette is the professional musician Annie would have become.

Forget Annie’s painful, confusing family, her star-crossed love affair with Thomas. Forget the fear and racial upheaval of the Civil Rights era in Pittsburgh and New York City. It’s her possibility for success as a professional violinist that excites me now, a possibility I gave up all thoughts of achieving myself.

I can see Annie playing Beethoven’s late quartet, Opus 131, on that grand stage. Annie does the work, stays the course. After all, she’s a graduate of Julliard, the same prestigious music school Daniel graduates from and where Peter teaches.

When you meet Annie in Dreamers, it’s during Christmas break. She’s practicing in her room when her father interrupts her to listen in. But who else listens?  Who hears her play other than her family through her closed bedroom door? These are the thoughts I was having in my bedroom while I read my books.

Who’s listening to Annie? Not her embittered, dissolute teacher in Dreamers. Not Thomas, the actor she falls so much in love with. Only rich, addicted, openhearted Lana, Thomas’ ex-girlfriend, befriends Annie and demands to hear her music.  I want to hear her music too.

Holding my violin, I will now open the door of my bedroom.

Dear Diary, Events, General

Dear Diary #4—Remember the Fun?

Dear Diary,
California State Fair, Sacramento
Race Horses Leaving the Gate

Come on. Get out of those diary dumps and come with me to the 2013 California State Fair.  Life’s excruciating between the covers of my old diary.  Get a grip. I’m tired of reading about my incessant self-absorption! Take this lament I wrote after the end of my freshman year in college:

A horrible thought is my uncanny recollection of the pain and my inability to remember the happiness. I fear the remembered joys for should I expect joy, I suppose I should fall apart.” –June 23, 1963.

I was tortured alright and I didn’t know how to get out of it.

I know now the world is a much bigger place and remembering joys can’t make me fall apart. They often lead to present ones. Take the Fair for example. How I love to watch those majestic race horses bolting from the gate.

Remember how I loved going to Kennywood Amusement Park in Pittsburgh? (No,  Kennywood isn’t mentioned in you, dear diary. That’s because it’s too much fun!)  Remember screaming with excitement and delight on the Racer roller coaster with Dad?  Remember being on top of the Ferris Wheel looking out over the Monongahela River  beside my best friend, Ginny, in our new matching shorts and tops, applying fresh lipstick between each new ride? The California State Fair is big fun too.

At the California State Fair Authors Booth
At the California State Fair Authors Booth

What’s so great is I get to be one of 40+ featured authors. I apologize to the literary critic and outright snob of eighteen, the judgmental author of said diary, when I freely admit I love presenting my novels Dreamers and Sundagger.net at the Fair. I revel in meeting and greeting everyone. We have great and small conversations about authors and books and I love selling mine. In fact, I enjoy the whole damn show.

Each author has his or her own unique story. For example, at the Authors’ Booth you’ll find Naida West, the long-time manager of the booth, author of the California Gold Trilogy, and a penetrating writer with a big heart and an even bigger vision.

I remember it was 1997 and I was going to an open-air book fair on the Embarcadero when I met Naida. I had been rewriting Dreamers for it seemed like forever and working on another novel too called Pillow Prayers, a desperate story of Age of Aquarius hippiedom.  That one’s still under my bed waiting to be sprung loose. That October day I took BART to the San Francisco wharf to rub shoulders with published authors and booksellers at a free book event that featured the best-selling Jane Smiley. But the author who really made an impression on me that day was Naida West.

Naida approached me smiling, as if welcoming me into her ’49er world. She wore a long paisley dress and matching bonnet, a pioneer outfit clearly meant to promote her novel on the small folding table,  River of Red Gold.  (I can hear my eighteen-year-old literary critic mumble, “But this is so obvious! So blatantly crude and sales-directed.”) As if a writer has to wait on a pedestal, hoping for a scraps, nods of recognition, pennies in remuneration.

After I read Naida West’s breakthrough California historical fiction, I realized here was a courageous woman at the helm of authordom, courageous enough to tell the gold rush story of San Francisco  from the authentic, Native American point of view. She was steering her own ship, a small press owner and publisher, while the infant self-publishing digital revolution had barely broken the surface of the Bay waves.

I’ve  met other writers at the Fair too who have opened my eyes to bright possibilities I never dreamed of.  Jody Horner was the inspiration for my present novel-in-progress, Spiral,  a story of migration. The animated author of a series of Golden History books compiled from primary source documents, Jody encouraged me to write a sun dagger series. I remember the moment I actually saw it was possible. In my mind’s eye I followed a besieged primitive Anasazi mother and her young son on a migration to a mountain top more dangerous than anything they left behind.  Where a few moments before I had never even considered the possibility of a prequel to Sundagger.net, now. . .now?  I can do it, I thought. I can see how it will go. The writing will be easy.

MMandMargie
Talking with Author Margie Yee Webb

 

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Dear Diary, General, Journal

Dear Diary #3—Once Upon a Time

Dear Diary,

mm looking forward & back

Remember those words “Once upon a time”?

Remember the comforting lulling adult voice reading, leading you into the magical world of beasts, princesses, orphans, witches, godmothers, beanstalks, dwarves, pumpkins, mice and giants?

As I read my dairy of fifty years ago, I’m imagining a fairytale that begins the same way.

“Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to be a great writer and to do this she knew she had to go to the Underground. Nobody told her how. Nobody wanted to talk about becoming a great writer so she figured it was a secret and she had to find the keys to Queendom of Writerly Greatness for herself. Arming herself with a bunch of famous books, she set out right after high school when she thought she had grown up.

It proved easy for her to get Underground. The authors in the books she had read left clues. She had her diary to write in. She didn’t even have to leave home. It wasn’t hard to find the keys.  She took one key from her father who read Shakespeare each night in his pajamas, the second from her high school boyfriend who abandoned her with no explanation, the third from the girlfriend who shared her dreams of literary greatness while betraying her, and the last from her college English teacher who critiqued her first novel without reading it.

But once Underground, she didn’t know where to go or how to achieve her dream. Though the keys opened the door, she found no use for them thereafter. Carrying them weighed heavy on her. They dragged her down as she crossed the murky, foul-smelling wasteland of the underworld,  the heavy metal keys clanking, mocking her  feelings of shock, fear, disappointment and loss. There had to be something else she thought. So she threw the keys away. Now all she had were those old books and her diary. She was simply and utterly  lost.”

This is all the further I’ve been able to get, Dear Diary. Maybe you hold the rest of the story, maybe not. It’s just that it’s the beginning of May and I’ve been distracted by springtime here in the Bay Area. All the roses in my front yard are blooming. Plus I just bought a second-hand stove after being without one since Christmas. Then there’s my dog who always wants to take a walk. There’s more reasons. I like to talk to the moon and stars at night.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

I’ve been reading some good books though. One I recommend is The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, an author who pulls you into a fairytale like no other. The story takes place on the barren lonely, raw and austere wilds of Alaska where Mabel’s just come with her husband Jack.They want to leave their old lives in Pennsylvania behind and start over, have a new life. But Mabel is haunted by the cries of the stillborn child she and Jack had lost many years before.

During the first snowfall, in a rare spirit of playfulness, Mabel suggests they make a snow child, a girl. She’s remembering a fairy tale in a book her father read to her as a child, a fairytale that haunted her.And so the story unfolds.

Little Daughter of the Snow by Arthur Ransome, Shena Guild and Tom Bower
Little Daughter of the Snow by Arthur Ransome, Shena Guild and Tom Bower

I had to stop reading The Snow Child for awhile.  I think it was the thin red fox “with narrow golden eyes like a cat” on the book’s cover, a fox who is the snow girl’s familiar, her spirit animal. I felt like the fox sometimes. And sometimes I felt like the snow child. Of the two, it was the fox I couldn’t bear to see in so much danger.

I couldn’t take up the novel again until I was ready to face losing the fox. But, as with any  good fairytale, I had to find out the ending. I did finish the book. You can find my review on Goodreads.

I learned that the author Eowyn Ivey, a young woman from Alaska, modeled her story after an old Russian fairytale she found in the bookstore where she works. Could I conjure up a haunting fairytale from my old diary the way Ivey did with that children’s book?

Dear Diary, you are my familiar, my fox. It doesn’t matter to me if I finish this fairytale or not. I swear I’m ready to face you. Just let you go. Read to the end.

 

 

The Snow Child by Freya Littledale and Barbara Lavallee
The Snow Child by Freya Littledale and Barbara Lavallee

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Dear Diary, General, Journal

Dear Diary #2—Sour Grapes

Dear Diary,

Yesterday’s Grapes

You’re a work of my teenage literary angst, a time where I was in free fall, a teenager with a bad case of sour grapes who rejected love the more she wanted it, who wouldn’t be caught dead writing the commonplace salutation, ‘Dear Diary’. You’re the Phantom of the Opera without the magnificent and haunting music, an angry, lonely rant born of frustration, like the ferocious hip-hop booming from car loudspeakers.

There’s a reason you’ve been buried for fifty years in assorted cardboard boxes stacked in dark closets and damp garages, moved from my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA to the places I’ve lived–Cape May, New York, Honolulu, Provincetown, San Francisco, Concord, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Santa Cruz, Clear Lake, Sebastopol, and now Pinole.

And yet I’ve kept you. There were other diaries that I didn’t keep. The first ones would have been gifts–small blue or black stitched books with gold painted clasps that you could lock with a tiny key. The lock and key signified secrets no one else could know unless I shared them. At eight or nine I loved secrets and I still do when they are mine.

When I was about ten I had a black and white composition book like you can find today at Safeway or Walgreens. This diary had a name–Fiona. I remember I spent a long time thinking it up. Fiona was a Celtic name, rare and mysterious like I imagined Ireland to be and where all my relatives came from. Fiona would be that perfect, secret friend within the covers of a book I could talk to whenever I wanted.

I remember working hard for short spurts at Fiona, failing to fill more than a few of the blue-lined blank sheets. Each word I wrote shut me up further. I just couldn’t think of anything important enough to matter to the big world outside. My desire to write died in the act of trying. I threw that diary away like my mother threw away those novels she disapproved of.

When I thought of being a great writer, I thought of male writers, not women. Back then I hadn’t even heard the word ‘feminist’, nor yet reached the point of claiming God as “She” or perhaps even Me. I took for granted that ‘man’ referred to humanity in general, as if the generic ‘man’ could ever include the woman I would become.

Everything I wanted felt impossible to attain. I was a young woman doomed in Catholicism I decided, struggling with “a strange knotted mixture of love and sex”. Yet how I want to talk to God, spelled with a capital ‘G’. I wrote prayers while declaiming how I hated to read them.  Once I lapsed into bad French as if to make my prayer more exotic and interesting.  “I shall reverse the incarnation,” I wrote. What did I mean by that?

In truth, I was heartbroken to leave childhood behind. The summer I began to write in you, dear diary, I read many books I decide are “unsatisfying and hopeless” (The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for one). I’m afraid “I shall never get out of myself.” Maybe that’s why I wanted to write a sequel to Catcher in the Rye. Along with Holden Caulfield, I felt despair at the idea that my childhood was gone–forever.

But things were changing. Something happened in the middle of winter during semester break.  I was having all my wisdom teeth out (the irony didn’t escape me then or now) and had to spend the night in the hospital. I remember lying in the hospital bed. The day was overcast, the room dark and poorly lit. It must have been the next morning after my teeth were pulled. I had been drugged and didn’t remember a thing, feeling relieved that the whole experience was over.

My cousin came to visit me. I felt embarrassed to have my mouth all swollen. It was hard to talk. Intermittent noises, loud and soft voices, bangs, the clank of medical equipment, sounded from outside in the hall. There was a knock on the door. In came a Catholic priest on his usual morning rounds. He was a short, compact man of middle age with a receding hairline, wearing a long black cassock. Carrying a chalice in his hand, he asked if I wanted to have Extreme Unction, the last sacrament given to Catholics who are near death. “No!”, I answered, shocked at the offer. He left quickly. I  was worried. Had I offended him? My cousin and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. How hilarious! How funny to imagine I would die having my wisdom teeth removed!

Kathy left and I was all alone with only the hospital noise outside for comfort. These unknown sounds made by strangers, people I would never know, reverberated in my mind. I realized I could write stories for these people and for everyone. I imagined my writer’s journey ahead as full of discovery and play. I didn’t find this idea impossible, not at all.

Now my diary bursts into an awkward joy. “I believe I am beginning to hope,” I write, while in the next sentence complaining that “working at the Sun Drug store does nothing for my self-possession”. Kathy found me that job the summer after my first year at Carnegie-Tech. She worked at the cash register, the better position, while I ‘manned’ the counter, serving up Cherry Cokes and a 29-cent breakfast (one piece of toast, one egg, one piece of bacon and one cup of coffee.) As usual these juicy details were not recorded.

“I shall never destroy innocence,” I wrote on the Fourth of July, 1963. Where was I that holiday?  At a family picnic? Did I go to the fireworks at the Point? What did I experience that prompted me to take such a stand for innocence?

“This happy day–September 21st, 1963,” begins another entry. It’s the start of my sophomore year and I’ve been reading Shakespeare’s early comedy, Two Gentlemen from Verona, which I find “so entertaining and sweet.”  I want to record how happy I am before the happiness disappears, describing how I prance about my bedroom eating grapes and listening to Johnny Mathis sing of true love. I write at length about the grape stems, marveling with awe and wonder at the purple-sweet fruit in my mouth.

Even now, every day when I start to write, it’s like I hold those grapes in my hand. I begin from that same unknowing, that blind innocence and hope. With the unknown yearning part of myself, I call up the story I want to tell. I might even dance around my room or listen to music about love.