From Hell

Prolific Napa Valley novelist, poet and memoirist, Nathaniel R. Bob Winters,  shares his impressions from the night of fire. Bob’s second book of poetry, Another Revolution, is now available.

 

From Hell

Nathaniel R. Bob Winters

Flames surround us

here in Saint Helena

north in Calistoga and over

the redwood pass in Santa Rosa

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Flames surrounds us

south in the vineyard hills above Napa

southwest in the Valley of the Moon

smoke is suffocating thick as syrup

 

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Flames surround us

the land I love my Eden is on fire

Should we stay or should we go?

Electric power, phones, internet is out

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Flames from hell surrounds us

We pack one car—leave the other

What to take–what to leave?

Whatever—we flee to San Francisco

 

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Flames over Napa Valley October 9, 2017   Photo by Cathy Carsell katiyakarma@yahoo.com

Thanks to all the photographers who documented the devastation and the outpouring of love  and helping hands.    ~AM

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Fanny Newcomb and the Irish Channel Ripper

 

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Fanny Newcomb, the plucky heroine of Fanny Newcomb and the Irish Channel Ripper, is a woman ahead of her age and from the first sentence, I knew Fanny was my kind of girl.

shoppingThe story opens on a Friday in April, 1889. Fanny is battling with a Hammond typewriting machine and “all hell would break loose” if she hadn’t mastered it by the time her typing students arrived the following Wednesday. Fanny had managed her Father’s law office for a decade but she’d never seen a typewriter before, something she’d failed to mention to her employer, Sylvia Giddings, Principal and Founder of Wisdom Hall Settlement House, at the interview. When her father died, Fanny lost her livelihood, failed as a lady’s companion and run out of resources. The school, located in the impoverished Irish district of New Orleans, offered business classes to the local women and appealed to Fanny’s sense of justice. And besides, teaching was better than marrying and being relegated to home, hearth and afternoon tea with New Orleans society ladies. A life without meaningful work is anathema to Fanny.

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Hull House

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Fanny is distracted by the incessant ringing of the infirmary bell and rushes to find twelve-year-old Liam who delivers the news: Dr. Olive Giddings, Sylvia’s sister, is needed at Connor’s Court because someone has been murdered. The women race to the scene and find Nora, Fanny’s star business student, strangled and meet Charity Hospital’s ambulance driver, a doctor whose manner horrifies Olive. As the crowd gathers, rumors start and soon the cry goes out, “Jesus! Joseph and Mary! It’s Jack the Ripper! Here in New Orleans!” The morning edition of the Daily Picayune echoes the crowd at the scene, reporting the woman has had her throat cut. The police don’t think it’s Jack the Ripper and come to Wisdom Hall Settlement House to arrest Sylvia’s carpenter, Karl, for the murder. Fanny knows Karl was working at the school at the time of the murder, added incentive to investigate the crime. She enlists Sylvia and Olive, Liam, beau Lawrence Decatur, tabloid journalist Clarence Holloway and even N.O. Police detective Daniel Crenshaw to help her identify the killer, free Karl and bring Nora the justice she deserves.

 

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Unknown-6Fanny’s investigation reveals more than a murderer. It takes readers through the colorful underbelly of New Orleans’s slums, saloons, prostitution and houses of prostitution. Revealed are the gulfs between the “haves” and “have nots”, the deep prejudices the Irish and German immigrants held for each other and the ingrained racism of white against black, regardless of social standing. Revealed is the rigid class system, hatred of immigrants, lack of concern for the poor and the blatant systems keeping them from rising in station.

 

The story is a fascinating look into the Gilded Age’s society, its hierarchies and mores. Women were at the bottom and unmarried women the lowest. Fanny questions her own motives and place in the world. Should she marry? Should she strive for independence? Fanny, Sylvia and Olive are spinsters and meddling in men’s work: schools, medicine, investigations. Society thwarts them at every turn. They are shunned, ridiculed, patronized and harangued by a priest as “bad women” on par with prostitutes for being unmarried and working, and like prostitutes, deserving of horrific deaths. In this intolerant and compassionless climate, it’s no wonder a wave of terror overtakes the city. Fanny, Sylvia and Olive want to exonerate Karl, but more, they fight the battle against ignorance and oppression for poor women and for their society as a whole. They are early social justice crusaders patterned after British Beatrice Webb, Americans Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Star, and Progressive Era pioneers Eleanor McMain, Eliza Nicholson and Sara Mayo.

At the end, Daniel Crenshaw is lauded as the hero to solve the case although it couldn’t have been done without Fanny and the Giddings sisters. Fanny understood that “Certainly, no one would have believed that Fanny, Sylvia, and Olive could have interjected themselves into a grisly murder, studied pornography, or visited a whorehouse and a prison. No lady could have attempted any of those social offences.”

Although author Ana Brazil’s historical detail is well researched and rich, at no time does her writing become didactic or does history drown-out the suspense and intrigue. Fanny is a risk taker and has a gift for theft. She manages to steal important documents that help her win the respect of her allies and solve the case. Between the three women of Wisdom Hall Settlement House, they bring most of the resources they need—Fanny’s clever, intelligent mind and legal training, Olive’s deep knowledge of the human body and medicine, and Sylvia’s connections and social standing—to solve the case. Each has something to offer, but it’s Fanny who has the mental acuity to see the patterns and put them together, leading her into extreme dangers. My pulse pounded during the story’s harrowing climax (no spoilers!)

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At the end, Brazil leaves readers with hope that there will be another Fanny Newcomb book. “But Fanny Newcomb also knew that she was not finished with investigating or questioning or detecting. And that she would look for any opportunity to seek out justice again. . . .” And what was that fission I noticed between Fanny and Daniel Crenshaw? I can’t wait for the next adventure to see if Fanny will cave to societal expectations or forge ahead doing what she loves.

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anapat_1505963276_75I want to wish Ana Brazil hearty congratulations on the publication of her first historical novel. It’s a fun, fast, informative, can’t-put-it-down read for anyone who loves New Orleans, the Gilded Age, strong women protagonists, mysteries and the Southern writing tradition. I love them all!

For a photographic exploration of Fanny’s time visit Ana’s Pinterest Board: Fanny Newcomb and the Irish Channel Ripper

 

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Fling!

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Last October I attended an event of the San Francisco Chapter WNBA, Women’s National Book Association.  Member authors presented their lately published books, and I was captured by Lily Iona MacKenzie and her 2015 release, Fling! I ran right to the signing table after the presentations and bought a copy, although later I received an audio version, which I listened to on trains crossing Spain (no plain, no rain.) IMG_4204.JPGDelighted, I wiled away the hours lost in the scenery and MacKenzie’s imaginative and wacky story of mothers and daughters, fulfilling one’s dreams and the magic that comes when you live life to the edge and possibly over. I felt like I was on my own quest, living my Spanish vacation to its maximum, experiencing the magic of discovery and expansion that comes with travel to new places. Everything thrummed with excitement, including my book—Fling!  Life couldn’t have been better.

Several days later, the book finished, and watching the lights coming on from our balcony overlooking La Sagrada Familia, I ruminated on Fling!. IMG_4013Set between three generations of women and four countries, much of the story takes place in Mexico. I know Mexico well and thought about what I’d learned by visiting the “parent” country, Spain. The mysterious twisting cobbled streets of the medieval cities, the ubiquitous artistic expression, the grand churches, the tile work, the crowds promenading through tapas bars in the evenings, the sense of happy self-actualization of the Spaniards—the foundation of the Mexican culture. I even found the magical realism: on the strains of symphonic music wafting through Granada’s cathedral, the phantasms flitting in the gardens of Generalife, the rain-bowed light streaming through the glass of La Sagrada Familia, the voices of antiquity whispering from somber portraits in the Prado Museum, the sensual buildings of the Modernista, a cathedral in the middle of the Mesquita! IMG_4901Then it was November 9th and only the unreal remained. We’ve had almost a year lacking magic. I say it’s time to look away from the devastation of the environment and our rude and hateful world of racism, deportations, killing sprees, and the crumbling of our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s time to find life’s fountain of youth and wonder again. Fling! is full of it.

Unknown-3Like any compelling saga, the story is told in multiple points of view across a span of three lifetimes. It opens with Malcolm MacGregor’s story of how his granddaughter Bubbles, née Heather, “had danced right off one of his paintings, landing in the family potato patch. . . .” in  1906 on the Isle of Skye, where “unpredictable things happen.” Her hippie daughter, Feather, has also inherited the Scottish sensibility of unpredictability, which shows up as  “Manannán  Mac Lirs’s underworld” in her paintings.

Bubbles has convinced Feather to come home to Calgary, Canada from San Francisco to celebrate her 90th birthday, but she has another motive. Bubbles has received a notice from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left seventy years earlier, in the late 1920s. Heather had left her family to go to Mexico with a married man. Bubble wants Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial.

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The story of their odyssey is woven together with the stories of their colorful Scottish ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The two women travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then in Mexico over six months. In magical Mexico, Feather learns much about her mother. She hasn’t fully believed her mother’s story, but when Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, she begins to understand the depth of her and her mother’s magic. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, helped by Indian villagers mistaking Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess and praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again, realizes she’s overlooked her own mother.

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Bubbles’ quest and a new man in her life has increased her zest for life. A life-long entrepreneur, she’s convinced she’s found the fountain of youth at a mineral spring outside San Miguel de Allende and she’s determined to bottle the water and sell it. A natural risk taker and believing she’s immortal, Bubbles lives life to the fullest in every way. Feather learns from Bubbles’ youthful spirit that it’s never too late to realize your dreams. Both have found the fountain of youth and they know that they will see everyone again, “if not in the flesh, then their souls hovering as a hummingbird, or fluttering as a butterfly, or floating above the earth as clouds.”

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Mackenzie has created two strong characters who are hilarious and endearing. Bubbles is a zany gypsy who takes after her mother, the ashes left at the dead letter office. She’s tough and tender and wants to reconcile with both the mother who left her and the daughter she left. At 90, she’s finally come of age and found the love of a good man. Feather, née Heather, at 57 is a San Francisco artist who desperately wants to break free of the male dominated world. She loves her mother but can’t quite connect to her as Bubbles lives inside a bubble that Feather feels has never burst. Feather grew up in her mother’s shadow, “. . .a moon, orbiting a planet.” and has worked hard to become her own person. Pragmatic, fearful and a worrier, she’s not much of a risk taker except in her art. She longs to be in charge of her own life. For all Bubbles exuberance, Feather is equally reserved, although she’s got a sharp eye and makes funny observations.  She’s Bubbles’ touchstone and Bubbles is Feather’s catalyst to relax and enjoy life.

 

The story is told in both past and present tenses. Mackenzie’s skill in sliding in and out of tenses and in and out of voices is superb. Chapter headings clue readers into time periods and goddess images separate scenes. In the audio version I listened to in Spain, Anna Crow, the reader, modulated her voice sufficiently to follow the changes and determine the speaker. I had no problem keeping up with her reading.

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Mackenzie’s language is straightforward and sensory. Her descriptions are vivid and progress to surprising comparisons and existential observations throughout the book. For example, On the plane to Mexico City they encounter a storm: “Lighting rips open the night sky, ragged edges illuminating patches of earth below. She [Bubbles] tries to ignore the severe turbulence. It reminds her of riding horses on the farm. . . . She could be going along, enjoying the ride, when suddenly all hell would break loose. . . . But then, life is like that. Everything seems fine. Then suddenly, it isn’t.” It’s these observations that are the real charm of the book. It’s like living inside the characters’ minds. And of course, these characters think the wildest things!

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In part, the collision of their Celtic roots and lore with the rich blend of Spanish colonial and indigenous Mexican characteristics and culture they encounter in Mexico is what makes this all work. Of course, magic happens! The dead come to visit, old ladies are mistaken for long awaited goddesses, and people change while finding their dreams. Ultimately, it’s the joy of life, la alegría de la vida that is the Fling! fountain of youth and it can be found or re-found at any age. Rereading passages of Fling! as I write this review has lifted me above my profound sadness for the most recent gun violence in our country. I’m feeling kinder toward our leadership. I feel like dancing, in fact. Maybe a Mexican Hat Dance? Fling! is a perfect book for now. As renowned author Lewis Buzbee puts it, Fling! is both hilarious and touching. Every page is a surprise, and the characters! I especially loved Bubbles, one of the most endearing mothers in recent fiction. A scintillating read.” ~Lewis Buzbee, award-winning author of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshopg review and faculty at University of San Francisco MFA program.

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Writing Rituals: Terry Shames

Terry Shames is one of my favorite authors and I hope you are inspired by her words. Thanks to Thonie Hevron and Just the Facts Ma’am.

Just the Facts, Ma'am

Terry Shames head shotBy Terry Shames

Well, that was fun! I just threw my writing rituals out the window. It was unintentional, but thorough in every way.

How did this happen? First let me describe my writing “habits” (not sure they rise to the status of ritual). I write almost every day. It doesn’t have to be brilliant prose, but it has to be at least 500 words, and when I’m working on a first draft I aim for 2,000. When you write 2,000 words most days, 500 seems like a snap. So when I went on vacation for two weeks, I magnanimously told myself I only had to write 500 a day. Suddenly, five days into the trip, I realized I hadn’t written so much as a word. In fact, I hadn’t even thought about writing anything. Not only that, but I found myself unable to read. I had brought a few…

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The Dating Bender

 

34738880I get it. Discovering who we are, what we love and transcending our crappy upbringings (or just escaping them) can be an arduous journey fraught with difficult trials and disastrous errors. We’re inculcated with our parent’s values, unfulfilled desires and bad behavior from our earliest memories. What Mom tells us we are is what we believe, and for many of us, me included, how she defined us was totally disconnected to what we knew to be true—deep down in our pure hearts.

Growing up wasn’t a smooth ride, and I longed to be able to strike out on my own (on Dad’s dime, of course) and become my true self. This true self involved a handsome prince who would rescue me from my lowly status  of  “difficult child” and restore me to my rightful place as Queen of the manor. All I need to do was learn the piano, learn tap and ballet, get straight As, speak French, demonstrate debutante manners and gracious hosting (physician husbands expected a wife who could entertain) be kind, sweet, chaste, God fearing, and compliant. Oh, and I was expected to also become a June Cleaver level housewife, cheerfully vacuuming the house in pearls and heels with my hair perfectly coiffed while a gourmet meal baked in the oven and hubby’s shirts lined up, starched and wrinkle free in the closet. I hated ironing and this was the Summer of Love. Who the hell coiffed their hair? Needless to say, tensions escalated at home and I couldn’t wait to get out.

“Go to college and find a husband. Learn how to do something practical in case you ever have to support yourself,” was my father’s advice. I loved school, it was an easy out, but the husband part was more difficult. Having been directed in all my decisions from birth, even in which gloves to wear to shopping in San Francisco, I lacked skill in making good ones. Add the fact I had no idea who I was or what I loved beyond Beat poetry, fairytales and fiction, I made horrendous choices in potential husbands. Unfortunately for me, my dating bender lasted until I turned fifty.Unknown-1

 

Samantha Serrano, adult daughter of good Catholic alcoholics, flees her dysfunctional family into a marriage that’s all wrong for her in The Dating Bender. It’s not that Sheldon is a bad guy, he’s just too busy building his career to be a husband and Samantha is too immature to do anything but run away, her patterned response. This time she runs to the world of high tech start-ups where her sex-pot friend Babs goads her into crazy, risky behavior and she starts a new affair with a despicable, nerdy and brilliant coworker that is a train wreck in the making. Things are not improved with the arrival of Sheldon and all of their worldly possessions rescued from the marriage. Samantha in typical response flees, the marriage over and the start-up job a bust. She goes home to Mom and Dad who are drunker, more critical and impose more expectations than ever.

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Drunk Parents

Samantha doesn’t last long at home. She hops a Greyhound for New Your City and falls into one relationship after the next as she suffers her irrational and demanding boss’s insane demands until she can’t take it anymore. Leaving a string of failures, she flies to Rome for a “power-confession’ at the Vatican. She ends up at the Trevi fountain to toss coins into the water and cry. images-3Her wallet goes missing, her ex-husband has appeared, and although a handsome Lothario is making love to her over espresso, she has an epiphany.

In Samantha’s words, I paced around my hotel room and obsessed over the facts. I had been married, divorced, fired, disowned, and almost excommunicated by a meddling nun.. . . Now it was all about my come-to-Jesus meeting with Sheldon, fitting considering my proximity to the religious capitol of the world. She keeps her lunch date with Sheldon and through their interaction comes to understand she’s not a bad person, but a normal woman who had fought hard to break away from her family’s vision of her and finally won. Samantha has forgiven herself, her parents and Sheldon. She’s free to finally live her life.

Throughout all the trials and tribulations of her own marriage, separation and divorce, Sam maintains a snarky wit, often making fun of herself. She appears to thrive on drama and is a popular culture junkie—reading every self-help article in every woman’s magazine. She constantly compares real life to the information in the articles through humorous observations, as she slowly grows from immaturity, naïve denial, fear and overwhelm to the contentment of knowing who she is and what she wants.

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Really?

Although at times I wanted to grab Sam and shake her for her blind, helpless attitudes and behaviors, especially all the vomiting, I found her lesson to be similar to my own, and often much funnier. Author Christina Julian demonstrates the makings of a fine contemporary humorist in her first Rom-com. Her writing occasionally goes over-the-top with the boozy “wah-wah” of Sam’s pathetic life, but is redeemed in its modern wit, sarcastic humor, fast-pace and detail laden prose. The Dating Bender’s plot is rich in disaster and soul searching, and Samantha is a complex character with a wide range of emotions and behaviors that attest to Julian’s powers of observation and empathy. I like how she’s put it all together to lead readers through the arc of growing out of dysfunction into a satisfying conclusion of acceptance, forgiveness, and redemption.

images-6I’m certain that Samantha Serrano is going to be a beacon for thousands of young women trying to balance their upbringings, their families, their work and their notions of God to create for themselves a healthy life, living free of outmoded thought, dogma and stress. Happiness? I hope everyone finds it, but sometimes the process of finding it is what’s compelling. The journey to master herself in a changing world (with dramatic style) and find peace and love is what draws us to Samantha. My heart went out to her as along the way she made so many of the mistakes I made. Samantha shows me that no matter how awful and wrong our origins, we can’t run away, but we can prevail in finding ourselves and establishing the life we should have. Weeks after reading The Dating Bender, Samantha Serrano still haunts me.

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Here’s a hearty congratulation to debut novelist Christina Julian on Launch Day!           May you delight us with many more to come.

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Re-inventing Aging: A Jane-lite Third Act

Remember when you were in your twenties? Who could forget those old geezers who groaned every time they rose from a chair? Observing them through the illusion of eternal youth, those oldsters seemed like a different species. I’ll bet you never thought you’d be one.

Neither did I.

But these days, creaking bones and aching muscles have become a routine part of my morning. I begin each day by tentatively evaluating my discomfort, and often it’s a matter of degree. Perchance my low back is tweaked, but at least my knee feels okay. My right pinky toe hurts, but my hips and ankles are holding. Now and then I still spring out of bed, pain free, but these days are becoming rare. Ten years ago, I may have been tight from working out, or a little sore from overdoing it, but ricketiness had not become a chronic condition. Recalling the passage of time, I go to a dark place — if this is what sixty feels like, what will seventy or God-willing, eighty bring?

I turned to Jane Fonda, who may have coined the expression Third Act in her 2011 book, Prime Time, an instruction manual of sorts for the over-sixty demographic. In a nutshell, Act One (age 0–29), “a time for gathering” includes the formative experiences of childhood, adolescence, self-image and gender identity. Act Two (age 30–59), “a time of building and in-between-ness” is characterized work and family relationships as they shift and evolve over time. Although Fonda explores the first two acts, The Third Act (age 60 and beyond) is the heart of her book.

Prime Time opens with Jane’s personal reflection at a turning point in her life. On the cusp of her sixtieth birthday, she begins to grapple with “the issue of time — the inexorability of it — pressing in on me.” I identify with Jane’s inertia, her sense of foreboding, and I am struck by her humility and courage.

She begins a soul-searching life review, examining family memorabilia, taking a humble look at the little girl or teenager smiling (or not) in family photos. Her process continues as she pieces together pivotal experiences, poring over her fifty-nine years. As if traveling back in time, she relives the joys and heartbreaks that have shaped her. Letting go and “becoming whole,” she is free to move forward into her Third Act.

Emerging from her life review, Jane hits the ground running. With her trademark vivacity, she steps up as spokesperson and champion for the chronologically challenged. Urging boomers to get off our lazy backsides, she crushes late-life stereotypes, coaching us to live “full tilt to the end.” The exposition is well-researched and prescriptive, providing concrete directives, a recipe for success if you will, with “eleven ingredients for successful aging.”

Here are Jane’s big eleven: Don’t abuse alcohol, don’t smoke, get enough sleep, be physically active, eat healthfully, keep learning, be positive, review and reflect, love and stay connected, give of yourself, care about the bigger picture. These sensible suggestions resonate with me. I cannot disagree with logic. Still, Jane’s recipe leaves me vaguely disquieted, as if I’m failing.

Those if us in our third act (60 or better) have learned a few things. For instance, when we thumb through magazines, ogling glossy airbrushed photos of flawless folks, we no longer compare ourselves to these images. We know better. We understand this kind of perfection is both simulated and humanly unattainable.

Jane’s “full tilt” life is like an airbrushed pic. Compared to her, I will always come up short. My inner cynic quips, who wouldn’t look fantastic with a team of surgeons, trainers and nutritionists? I remind myself of her celebrity status, wealth and entitlement and it’s easy to dismiss her, writing her off as another self-appointed “expert” wielding her fame. Alas, I am not superhuman. I will never be Jane. Who cares? Who needs soul-crushing perfectionism? Pass the pizza.

Yet, as I close Jane’s book and reach for a cheesy slice, I’m hit with an unexpected twinge of guilt, or perhaps shame. Maybe it’s all the wasted hours I’ve spent binge-watching re-runs on Hulu, that third glass of wine. Could it be the dark chocolate that keeps mysteriously disappearing from my cupboard? I glance down at the book jacket, Jane’s all-knowing eyes looking back at me. At that moment, I contemplate her legacy. Whether you love or despise her, Jane is a force. She’s inspired many, including me, as she continues to evolve and reinvent herself. An accomplished actor, controversial political activist and legendary guru of fitness for more than six decades, at 79, her vitality is undiminished. These days, Jane is busy lighting up the screen with Lily Tomlin, eviscerating so-called older women’s traditional roles, in the groundbreaking, irreverent, smart and wickedly funny hit show Grace and Frankie. Unlike the endless parade of vapid, pretty people in the media mainstream, I cannot dismiss her.

I pick up the book, studying her face. What do you want from me, Jane? Must I eat more kale? Must I lift weights? Learn Italian? Perhaps I am losing my grip on reality, because I hear Jane’s response. She reminds me that my choices are my own, but whatever I choose, to live with intention.

I exhale noisily. I admit it — Jane is right.

Very well, Jane. You win.

Did she just wink at me?

The Reckoning

Taking an honest inventory of my life, I recognize room for improvement. Disclosure: I’m afraid to start something I cannot finish. I don’t want to fail. Sorry, Jane. I’m not quite ready to revisit my past unflinchingly. I’ll save the life review for later. So, how do I begin my Third Act, intentionally and with clarity?

I’ve never been good at diets. The moment a food is deemed off-limits or “forbidden,” it’s literally all I think about. Going cold turkey on vices such as wine, chocolate or overconsumption of the Internet, I am destined to fail. Adding a positive goal, not subtracting, has always been more successful for me.

As fall approaches, I’m reminded of new beginnings. With that mind, I embark on a more conscious Third Act, taking baby steps toward meaningful change. The first thing that comes to mind is diet. I’m a decent cook, but night after night, it often feels like drudgery, so most of the time, I rely on prepacked salad greens to fulfill the vegie requirement. I love vegetables and I know they’re good for my body, but don’t eat enough of them. I tell myself it’s too time-consuming and I’m just too damn busy for all that shopping and cooking. Hell, I’m not Jane Fonda. I have no personal chef, tempting me daily with an abundant variety of luscious, exotically prepared vegies.

This is the point where I smugly justify my laziness. But not this time, because the veil has been lifted. I can choose to make this manageable, yet significant change. There may be only one Jane, but the rest of us can strive for Jane-lite.

JC’s August-September Baby-Steps Challenge

I task myself, and anyone who’d like to join me, to consume a greater variety and quantity of vegetables. Your ideas and suggestions are very welcome.

Baby steps, people.

Stay tuned for updates!

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Not Quite Jane, but Jane-lite

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A Life for a Life

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A few years ago, my sister-in-law retired, leaving her urban lifestyle and moving to a cozy cottage in Warrensville, North Caroline on the edge of the Great Smokey Mountains. Her tales of the quaint village atmosphere, the surrounding natural beauty, and the restful pace of life lure me to visit. Out of curiosity I started reading about the state, and recently stumbled across A Life for a Life by Lynda McDaniel, journalist and award-winning author of fifteen books. This is her first novel, a cozy murder mystery set in the fictional town of Laurel Falls in the remote mountains of Appalachia.

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Laurel Falls is a town that hasn’t changed much in a hundred years, including the name of Coburn’s General Store even when newcomer Della Kinkaid buys it on a whim after a stay in the Black Mountains. No one could remember why the store was called Coburn’s and no one was going to call it anything else.

o19-700x466Until she decided to buy Coburn’s, Della hadn’t known how much she wanted a change in her life. She was eager to leave her career as a high-profile Washington D.C. reporter, her cheating ex-husband and all the “big city hassles” for the dilapidated store and apartment in a tiny town known for its waterfall and miles of wilderness hiking trails. It was in the woods Della and her dog, Jake, come across the body of a young woman. The woman is a stranger to Laurel Falls and sketchy evidence points the sheriff to think she committed suicide. Della disagrees and turns to an unlikely group of customers and friends, including a forger and her ex, to solve the crime.

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Although Della hasn’t been welcomed into the community, she has made a few friends. First among them is Abit, the fifteen-year-old son of the previous owners of Coburn’s. Abit’s real name is Vester, but because he’s “a bit slow” he received the moniker as a child and it’s stuck. Abit is a character in the vein of Forrest Gump, but unlike Forrest, he is not well accepted by his family or schoolmates. Abit’s father has removed him from school and the boy has little to do but lounge in his chair on the porch of the store and watch the world ignore him as it passes by. Abit recognizes how Della and he are alike, and their friendship deepens as he helps her with the store and solving the murder.

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The story is a cloze puzzle with Della and Abit meting out information in chapters of alternating points of view. The book commences with a prologue where Abit announces, “My life was saved by a murder.” It’s true. Throughout the narrative Abit and Della form a bond, and both characters journey into self-discovery and growth that lift them from “outsider” status. Each brings skills and knowledge to the investigation and life in a closed society that the other lacks. The dual points of view I found an enhancement to the story. I found their interactions with the varied supporting characters, who add to or hinder the work of living in Laurel Falls and finding a murderer, to be believable. They add color and interest to the story, and several, hopefully, will return in the sequel.

The characters and the setting are as much to do with the story as the mystery. Author, Lynda McDaniel’s attention to detail and adroit descriptions allow the reader to step right into Laurel Falls. You can hear the trumpeting call of the pileated woodpecker and feel the mist rising off the waterfall. Drawing from her “back to the land” years in North Carolina, McDaniel has stitched a patchwork of true and fictional events and people into a thoughtful mystery rooted in race, greed power and sorrow. People from McDaniel’s time in Appalachia crop up in A Life for a Life like the cranky laundromat owner, the gentle giant beekeeper who provides Della with honey, the woman who taught McDaniel to make blackberry jam and can tomatoes, Della’s best friend Cleva.

images-8McDaniel’s writing style, while vivid with detail, is deceptively straightforward. She’s not prone to overwrite her scenes or devolve into flowery dialog. She uses authentic sounding dialog and delivers real down-home southern mountain culture in what one reviewer compared to the style of Fannie Flagg. A Life for a Life has also been compared to To Kill a Mockingbird. I agree that both depict southern mores and southern style small-town living, albeit in different eras, well. Both are character driven and back a strong message of forgiveness, redemption and acceptance.Unknown-1

In A Life for a Life, a tragedy becomes the opportunity for two unlikely characters to re-start their lives: Della accepted into the Laurel Falls community and Abit embraced within his family and offered the opportunity he had dreamed of.

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A Life for a Life is one of the most satisfying books I’ve read this year. Everything about the book delighted me. I want to know more about the quirky folks in the mountains and the southern customs. The sense of personal independence, the strong family ties, and the slow-moving and tight-knit community are characteristics I applaud. Lynda McDaniel claims that everything she values today, she learned in her Appalachian home, and she’s written her love and gratitude into A Life for a Life.

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The Secret to Happiness and Productivity

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Since last week’s post, I haven’t misplaced my keys once. I’ve accomplished  some writing and sent out queries. The bills are paid, the garden is watered, and I’ve managed to meditate most days. Things are looking up. Already I feel calmer, happier and have improved my outlook on the future. Am I waking up?

I looked into the benefits of meditation and learned that it reduces stress, pain and stress related inflammation from conditions like arthritis and asthma as it lowers blood pressure and slows Alzheimer’s disease. Wow! Scientists say that mindfulness meditation might be as effective as antidepressants for treating anxiety. In The Art of Meditation  by Janice Dunn published in TIME’s Special Edition: Mindfulness, The New Science of Health and Happiness, the author says doctors are recommending meditation for insomnia and irritable bowel syndrome. She says it take about eight week of practice to decrease stress, but I’m already feeling less hurried and ready to roll with the punches with the boost of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins my mindful brain is releasing.

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So what is mindfulness meditation, or vipassana practice?  It’s a way to “develop stillness in the midst of activity” according to Jack Kornfield. Vipassana means to “see things as they really are”  and the practice emphasizes mindful attention and develops immediate awareness of our experience in our activities. It teaches us to be present and alive. As Alan Watts said, “. . .It consists in being completely sensitive to each moment, in regarding it as utterly new and unique, in having the mind open and wholly receptive.”

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The leader of my Spiritual Center, Edward Viljoen, writes in his book, The Power of Meditation, “Observing life through meditation with less ‘unnecessary added meaning’ to what was happening inside and outside allowed reality to come into clearer focus.” It “opened the door to an infinity of ideas and awarenesses,” which he wondered how he’s managed without. I’m wondering about those ideas too.

RhondaGerhardPsychotherapyI started a new five-week meditation workshop today, Resiliency and Happiness. The series offers mindfulness based meditative techniques and Yoga Nidra for finding resiliency and happiness in the midst of challenges.  It’s my second series with Petaluma’s Rhonda Gerhard, and  this afternoon we explored intention in a guided meditation. Fixing on a couple of key words and keeping them in my mind throughout the meditation, I already feel like I’m on track to living in intention.

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I’m also energized and alert.  These are effects of Yoga Nidra, a state of deep relaxation combined with awareness. This practice calms the nervous system and allows practitioners to receive a subtle flow of energy throughout their bodies. There’s nothing like resting in a state of harmony. It’s better than sleep! Not only do your brain waves  slow down, but you can neutralize body sensations , like pain, stress, negative emotions and feelings, and even neutralize beliefs—part of that intention development. At the end of the hour, I came away with a sense of calm and well-being. Just what I needed, especially after receiving unsettling news today.

In the past I might have eaten a bowl of ice cream and veged-out in front of mindless TV after bad news. I certainly wouldn’t have gotten supper on the table a half hour earlier than usual, enjoyed a lively conversation with my husband as we ate, cleaned up and come back to the office to write my post—and feel really great about it. I’m happy to be here and looking forward to my next task too. By bedtime, I’ll have ticked off everything on my TO DO list and read another chapter of  The Power of Meditation.

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Namaste!

 

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Another Half-Year Older (And what do you have to show for it?)

 

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Yesterday was  the longest day of the year. I didn’t get my writing done. I didn’t get my revision done. I didn’t get  my blog posted. What did I do all day? What do I do any day?

How can I stop churning and start winning?

Let’s consider this for a moment:

I began at 7:30 with coffee and laundry. Next I paid my mother’s bills and prepared the checks for the mail. I reordered a prescription on-line, brought our checkbook up to date and made my list of errands before showering, dressing and inhaling the breakfast my darling short-order cook made (bless his  heart).

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“ Looking up, I noticed I was late. . . “

I jumped into the car and made it into my seat at the lecture on medieval tapestries (I’m researching a poem) as the lecturer took the podium. Unknown-1Back home, I inventoried the refrigerator and pantry while I ate crackers and apricots for lunch, planned the next week’s menus and made a grocery list for my Wednesday run to Oliver’s  (senior discount day). I started  salad greens soaking in filtered water for our dinner (served with sliced tomato, radish, egg, potato, chicken and tuna—refreshing on another hot evening) and went to my office to complete the waiting list of tasks: new bio for the new website, update my credits’ list, grab covers and web addresses for the anthologies I’ve published in.

“ Looking up, I noticed I was late. . . “ The Post Office was going to close in ten minutes.  I gathered the letters and parcels needing postage and flew. . . .

Back in the office I finished a volunteer proofreading assignment for the next Redwood Writers anthology and and returned to the kitchen (after a pass through my garden to smell the roses) and made dinner, ate and washed up.

IMG_6414Suddenly it was  after nine and I hadn’t written, let alone posted, a blog entry, worked on the book review now due, or worked on the revision of my second novel—a lot of zeros on my checklist.

Time is ticking by and I’m exhausted. I feel like a total loser because another day, another  half year has gone by and I haven’t done my work.

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I read an article in the Huffpost recently by Abigail Williams called “5 Secrets of People Who are Always Organized.” Here’s what she says:

  • They live by lists. The key is to keep lists manageable by breaking down long-term tasks into small steps. Maybe revising the entire book today was too ambitious?
  • They have a place for everything and put everything in its place. I’m late every day because, well, where did I leave my keys?
  • They make clear, quick decisions and stick to them. I agonize over all the options, killing efficiency. Mary Oliver opens her poem, Wild Geese, with “You do not have to be good/ You do not have to walk on your knees. . .” Just get on with it!
  • They cut the clutter. What? Clean up and keep clean my wildly creative workspace (euphemism for “totally messy”)? Now, where did I put those new file folders decorated with scenes of London, Rome and Paris?
  • They value their time. Don’t you just hate those organized people? They’re able to do it all! Uh-uh. They work smarter and delegate. And herein lies the conundrum—I’m the delegee.

UnknownSo what am I going to delegate? Certainly not the shopping, dinner preparation or laundry. I’d be thrilled to stop housework, but if not me, who? My husband is earning a living (and anyway, he takes out the garbage and mows). He’d gladly hire a housekeeper—when I earn enough to pay for her. Drop my fiduciary responsibilities to my aged Mother and our family business? But as a retired accountant I’m so well qualified. Stop volunteering? Let my garden turn into a brambly weed patch? Quit my job? No, no, and no! I love my work, and my garden is my sanity keeper.

What’s the solution? Less TV? Less sleep? Less socializing?

I’m going to add a sixth secret to Abigail’s list:

  • People who are organized pay attention.  The experts say the more time you devote to your spiritual practice, the more efficiently you’ll run your life., so meditate more often. A study done at the University of Wisconsin—Madison found “people who meditate regularly have different patterns of brain waves, potentially leading to more efficient attention-paying and learning.” Meditation then is a means to organizing your mind, exactly what I need. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to sit.

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Until Further Notice, Celebrate Everything!

I’m enjoying Skylarity’s posts. Check him out, and celebrate everything!

 

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