Blithely ignoring rules

Rules are made to be broken, I’ve read. So why bother with rules at all? Within minutes of my last very personal post, I read that blogs shouldn’t be personal. What? Two of the first blogs I started following were entirely based on personal experience. The response to my personal blog appeared to be the most I’ve had in my short blogging life.

I’m not assuming that my personal experience or opinion is anything special, but if it’s an experience shared by others or a thought-provoking or reassuring opinion, why not post it?

Another long-established rule I consciously ignore is to write every day. I heard that admonition from so many sources for so many years that I unthinkingly passed it on to my students. The only way one improves, I said, whether playing the violin or playing tennis or painting watercolors, or writing, is to practice. If you can’t think of anything to write, write “I can’t thinking of anything to write,” over and over.

Can you imagine anything more demoralizing, more an admission of failure, than writing the same inane thing over and over? So I soon amended my instruction to start, “Yesterday I . . .” and write in detail as vividly as possible your humorous or humiliating or boring yesterday. I also provided long lists of prompts because I asked for five journal entries per week from my writing students in addition to required essays.

Now I see writing as extending far beyond forcing words onto paper or screen. I jot ideas virtually or figuratively and rummage around mentally, falling asleep and waking up composing and revising so when I sit down to write there’s plenty to work with. That’s when writing is joyful.



So very ignorant, yet still trying

Today for the first time I read a blog by someone who confessed ignorance and frustration with the intricacies of blogging. Now I’ve publicly admitted technological incompetence almost beyond comprehension.Lest I be labeled an old Luddite, let me say I bought my first computer, an Apple 2e, in 1981 or 2. Maybe that level of sophistication is all I am capable of handling, but years in academia forced me to struggle through WordPerfect 5.1 and every iteration of Word, always mastering only what I had to know to function.

As programs became more sophisticated, I appeared to lose the brain cells necessary to understand them. That may be more reality than appearance. Fifteen years ago I had open heart double bypass surgery which entails being virtually dead, with a machine taking over vital functions. That can result in what heart surgeons call “bubble brain”, a loss of mental function they have observed in some patients perhaps because of bubbles forced into the brain by the blood-circulating machine.. Call it paranoia, but I have felt a faltering, a hesitation, I didn’t note before. Or maybe I was never as smart as I thought.

Then four years ago I had a left brain stroke which resulted in complete loss of speech and a paralyzed right hand and numbed right side for a short time. I still seem to struggle more than before finding the right word and getting it spoken without slurring a bit. So I often call out to my husband,  “What’s another word for _____?” or “What do you call a _____?” or “Help! The computer is froze up again.”

Starting to blog five months ago, it was some time before I realized that “comment” and “follow” had to be activated. My theme somehow changed without my permission. Unless I log in just right, I have no dashboard. Just last week I realized I should have a page about my books, which I have mentioned but felt reluctant to “advertise.”

This in spite of studying a five-pound tome from the library and finally buying a WordPress for Dummies type of book, which has vocabulary and concepts beyond my  understanding.

I still enjoy writing, so maybe I should just write and not worry about rivaling all those smart talented bloggers who post stunning photos and employ all manner of widgets and clever interfaces. (Have I used that term right?)

When is modest too modest?

After starting this blog in April, just today I added the page “My Books.” I mentioned them several times, but somehow it seemed pushy to advertise them. Ignoring advice from many sources that I should toot my “published!” horn as loudly as possible on as many social media platforms as possible, I demurred and delayed.

But didn’t you start this blog because you had published a book, you might ask. The answer is yes, but more than that, I envisioned it as possibly helpful to other writers/would-be indie publishers. I cow pathed into some personal experience blogs, copied a vignette from my memoir, asked some philosophical questions and just generally lost focus.

I may be back in focus now. Or not.

Lesson in Love

This is a vignette from my childhood included in my memoir.

aaa-schoolAmong my Christmas decorations is an old snowflake ornament, which never fails to bring tears to my eyes.  It always reminds me of a Christmas from my childhood, a memory bittersweet, as Christmas memories sometimes are.  I still remember clearly that snowy December night many years ago when I stuck out my tongue at my grandmother and she cried.  It was my first hint of the complexities of love.

My grandmother Walters was a strong pioneering woman who had received her teaching certificate from a normal school in Iowa when she was still a teen-ager.  She was a kind but firm teacher who expected the best from her students, and I wanted to be a teacher just like her when I grew up.  Widowed for many years, she sometimes lived with us, and she was my teacher for first and second grades at the little school on Garfield Creek near our ranch in Colorado.  Then the country schools in our area were consolidated, and I would have to ride the bus to New Castle.

One late summer day Grandma told us, with blue eyes twinkling behind her rimless glasses.  “I have a contract to teach at Dry Hollow this year.”  I looked hopefully from my father to my mother to my grandmother.  Then she said, “Would you like to live there with me?”  I was too happy to answer.

So that winter I lived with my grandmother in a little partitioned-off corner of the school on Elk Creek called Dry Hollow.  Our room was just big enough for a bed, a small table and two chairs, a two-burner kerosene stove and the orange crate where we kept our clothes.  Dad and Mother usually came to take us home for weekends, but the ranch was over twenty miles of winding mountain road away, and sometimes heavy snow made the trip impossible.

On the Friday before Christmas vacation, the snowflakes began falling early in the afternoon, and the gravel road in front of the school was soon covered with snow.  Arthur, the school clown, started one of his hiccuping spells.  Grandma’s frown silenced him.  I squirmed in my seat.  She turned, lips compressed into a disapproving line, and came to inspect the composition I was writing.  A spitwad flew across the room as Grandma returned to her desk.  She looked at each of her dozen students ranging from first through eighth grades and smoothed her starched cotton dress.  “I realize this is the last day of school before Christmas vacation,” she said.  That’s no excuse for misbehavior.”  She took off her glasses and wiped them with an embroidered handkerchief plucked from the neck of her dress.  She walked to the blackboard, wrote in her meticulous script, “Merry Christmas”, then turned with a hint of smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.  “If there are no more disruptions, you may leave ten minutes early.”

That’s what we had been waiting to hear.  The only sound was the crackling of the fire and the scratching of pencils on paper.  I stared at the blackboard.  Merry Christmas.  I was assaulted by memories and expectations which blocked out the schoolroom and the snow outside.

A tall pine in the living room of our spacious ranch house.  Me standing on the ornate iron grill of the furnace floor vent, looking at the fragrant branches sheltering bright mysteries shrouded in red and green.  Standing with the warm air puffing my skirt out, smelling roasting turkey and plum pudding, hearing “Silent Night” on the phonograph.

As the other students bundled up to leave, shouting Christmas greeting on their way out, I stood silently by a window.  The big snowflakes were falling faster, hanging heavy on the tree branches, cloaking the fence posts.  I could barely keep the tears choked back.  We won’t be able to get home tonight, I thought, and probably not tomorrow, and maybe never!

As she did every Friday after school, Grandma sprinkled sweeping compound on the old wooden floor, using the sturdy wooden shingle she had so effectively applied to my behind on the two occasions I had blatantly disobeyed her.  I remembered how surprised I was, though I certainly deserved those spankings.  Grandma was not given to displays of emotion.

I kicked at the oily sawdust and reluctantly went to the closet for the other broom.  I knew we wouldn’t discuss not being able to go home.  We never spoke of many things.  The bitter cold at night in our little corner or the chill at midday even with a fire in the stove.  Or the fact that our nearest neighbors lived too far away to walk through the snow for a visit.  If I started to grumble, Grandma would say, “Complaining never makes anything easier.”

Other favorite sayings of hers still come to mind.  “From the day of your birth till you ride in the hearse, there’s nothing so bad but what it might have been worse.” And “As a rule a man’s a fool.  When it’s hot he wants it cool.  When it’s cool he wants it hot.  He’s always wanting what is not.”

We sat at the table that evening after supper, just as though it were any other evening, Grandma crocheting rapidly on a delicate white doily while I tried to correct the arithmetic problems I had done wrong that day.  In the evenings after my school work was finished, we read and sometimes popped corm, or Grandma recited poetry — she knew long poems like “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” by heart, and I was learning some poems too.  The times I liked best were when she talked about the early homesteading days in eastern Colorado, where she taught in a little school much like this one, and plowed her hundred and sixty acres walking behind a single mule, summer after summer.  There she met my grandfather, a neighboring homesteader, whom I never knew because he died when my father was a boy.

But before poetry or stories came the lessons.  I despaired of ever learning multiplication.  I hated it.  The room smelled of the wood fire, kerosene from the lamp, and, faintly, the fried parsnips we’d had for supper, never one of my favorite dishes.  My legs were cold, even in the long brown stockings I loathed.  Grandma buttoned the top button of her wool sweater.  We could hear the wind coming up, which meant the snow would soon be drifted high against the outhouse door.  I dreaded the nightly trek with the flashlight, which seemed only to highlight the scary shadows.

I stared long at the next problem, thinking of Mother and Dad in our warm beautiful house and Christmas waiting there.  Grandma went to stoke the fire, then sat down opposite me again.  I wallowed in my misery, unable to concentrate.  Finally she said, “Well, what is the answer?”

Quickly I hunched over the paper and scribbled some numbers.  Maybe she would be satisfied to believe I was trying.  But she looked at it closely.

“Why, that’s ridiculous, child,” she said.  “Are you ever going to learn your times tables?  Here, let me show you.”

The cold and homesickness and frustration welled up in me.  I looked straight at the top of her neatly parted grey hair and stuck out my tongue.

“There,” she said and raised her eyes.  I saw the surprise in them before I quickly lowered my own.  She’ll slap me, I thought, though she never had.  My face burned worse than from any slap, while the chill in my legs spread to my insides.

I kept my head down, gradually looking up as far as her hands, just above the table. She was crocheting again, very slowly.  Her right index finger was completely stiff from an old injury, even turning up at the first joint.  She wrote and sewed and crocheted so well I almost forgot about that finger not being able to bend.  Now it seemed awkward and in the way and I wondered if it still hurt her sometimes.  I stared at the flickering shadows on the arithmetic book and again at her slowly moving hands.  Finally, without moving my head, I dared raise my eyes to her face.  Her eyes were closed and tears were streaming down her cheeks.

Quickly I looked back at the book.  Her tears were something entirely unexpected, alien to everything I knew about her.  Even when my little brother died, I never saw her cry. She was too busy comforting us.  I looked up again.  Yes, it was true.  Suddenly I felt a great warmth surging through me.  She loved me.  She had to love me to cry because of me, I reasoned.  Of course I knew she did, though she’d never said so.  But this was concrete, almost better than saying it.  And I had hurt her.  I felt so ashamed.  The warmth left me as suddenly as it had come.  I shivered.

As quickly as possible I dressed for bed and huddled under the heavy quilts, doubled around the pain inside.  It seemed like a long time before she came to bed.  When I thought she must be asleep, I felt under the covers for her hand and gently touched her stiff finger.  Her hand closed around mine.

“Yes, dear, I understand,” she said softly.  Then after a pause, “If we aren’t home for Christmas, we’ll just have out own little celebration here.  And our Christmas will be waiting whenever we get there.”

My tears dried quickly on the pillow.  It was my first lesson in love, how easily it can hurt, and how quickly it can heal.

A Cat Saga, Part II

Several years ago we had invested over $100 to humanely get rid of a stray cat which was terrorizing Che, our long-time resident crippled stray cat. Now Che too is gone and we are overrun with, as it turns out, wood rats living in the crawl space under our house, scritching around in walls, chewing through drywall, tearing into dog food bags and leaving droppings all over the garage.

Mark puts up a valiant battle. First he deploys traditional mouse traps. They are triggered and empty, in one case disappearing entirely. Then he brandishes the Squirrelinator which he uses to live trap squirrels that eat our fruit. The varmints eat the dog food bait inside that trap and exit left — or right, or however they want. We certainly don’t want poisoned dead rats under our house and so far three types of traps have failed. We need a cat!

We keep an eye out on Craigslist and in the newspaper. Nothing. We watch the webcams at our local shelter and Humane Society, and fall for a cute black and white female at the shelter. Described as shy, she lets me pet her in her little cloth-covered box with a white fuzzy ball hanging down in front of her.

“Does her little house come with her?” I ask, and they agree that’s where she’s most comfortable. We pay the $40 fee and decide to call her Aunt Bea. We stop on the way home for food, litter, and toys.

At home we set up the large crate we bought for our golden doodle and put Aunt Bea’s house there to keep her safely in the garage. We have been refinishing our garage door and want to make sure she doesn’t escape. When the door is done we open the cage and shut her in only when we take the car out. Every time we peek in, we spy her white nose and we notice she’s eating her food and using the litter box.

One day, curious, I lift the top of the crate and tip the cloth-covered box. No Aunt Bea! It’s obvious that stooping over and peering into the dark box, we’ve thought the fuzzy ball hanging down was her white face. But where does she hide? After searching all the nooks and crannies, we decide she must be going under the house through the hole rats chewed in the drywall around the washer drain pipe. Great! That’s just where we need her.

Later,  Mark needs to drive out of town and just to be cautious, he looks under the car and under the hood. We’ve read many stories about the fate of cats hiding in the engine compartment. He drives the ten miles from our house through town, then onto the freeway when WHAP! What’s left of Aunt Bea flies out from under the car.

We grieve a bit for the cat we never knew, and then we see a Craigslist for two good mousers about an hour’s drive away. When we arrive the owners have managed to capture only one, which they chase around the house a while. “That’s okay,” we say. “We only wanted one.” The owner insists that we must take both because they won’t hunt unless they’re together and says she’ll bring the other one to us when they catch him.

Our carrying cage is no match for a large fiercely struggling cat and on the way to the car the top latch springs open, the cat flies out and away. The owner calls in a few days saying she’s found someone local to take them both. We’re relieved. Good luck, we think, keeping those cats around.

We watch the cat cam at the Humane Society until we again find a lovely female. We’re told our choice is too feral and they need to keep her longer. But next door to her is a handsome big male, black with a white chest and socks. He welcomes our pats, which is an encouraging sign. Chance is his name, and we take a chance on him, paying the $60 fee. This time we leave the car outside and don’t even open the garage door. He spends day after day squeezed into a small space behind the dryer. We are to take him to the vet in a week, but we don’t chance it yet.

Finally he will come out when we call; then he asks to come in the house. We hold him, pet and brush him, introduce him to Dood, and all is well. Finally we go the vet, where he behaves admirably and we drop another $40. Still we keep him captive, just to make sure. Finally Mark opens the pet door and makes sure he knows how to go in and out. Then we leave him free for good and WHEE! He’s gone. Once Mark sees him up the hill in the orchard and calls, but he runs away.

We put a bowl of cat food in the orchard and when it disappears, Mark sets up a infrared surveillance camera and we catch photos of a pure black cat, a skunk, Stellar’s Jays and what looks like a light-colored striped cat eating the food over a period of weeks. Definitely no Chance in the photos.

Meanwhile Mark found heavy-duty rat traps at the Grange and is regularly catching rats. Maybe by the time we’re rid of rats we will have seduced a cat into staying with us?  Watch this space.

A Cat Saga, Part I

Animals have played an important role in my life and many animal stories are included in my memoir. This a new story (for another memoir?), though its preface starts years ago when a pathetic starving cat showed up at our house in northern Arizona. Our latest two elderly dogs and twenty-year-old cat had died within a couple years of each other, and we persuaded ourselves that we could live without a pet for a while. After all, we reasoned, we both worked and loved to travel. We would be free!

But we couldn’t resist this pathetic creature which had somehow found her way to our secluded home on a rural dirt road. Soon we had added another dog, a Miniature Schnauzer/Westie/Lhasa Apso mix, and of course Che and Sadie  moved with us to Oregon. We installed a side door into the garage with a pet door so they were free to roam our five wooded acres.

Then trouble showed up: a large young-looking gray striped female with a pink collar and bell. coming through the pet door and devouring Che’s food. We put an ad in Lost and Found; no reply. We advertised her for free; no takers. We tried to love Cloe, we really did. But she scratched our furniture and being petted on our laps often bit us, which none of our other cats had done. Still, we might have kept her if she hadn’t been terrorizing our poor old Che, then over fifteen and not too agile. We kept the pet door shut until Cloe finally disappeared to find greener pastures.

During our next trip we hired a cat sitter to look in on Che because we didn’t feel comfortable risking Cloe coming around again. We returned to find strange empty cat food cans in the garage. Cat Sitter explained that about her third visit she heard a pathetic yowling in the carport, discovered Cloe, and started feeding her. She had also advertised in Lost and Found and Free Pets.

The next logical step was to contact the Humane Society. They would take Cloe only if she was spayed and had her current shots. So off to the vet we went. Cloe had to be sedated to check her fertility status and we finally escaped $75 poorer. Back to the shelter, where Cloe had to pass a sociability test. Thankfully she didn’t bite the handler, and with a $35 “donation” we were allowed to leave her there. Getting rid of that cat cost well over $100!

Fast forward a couple of years to late 2015. Che has died and we are awash in some kind of rodents, mice, we guess. Our first hint is pink insulation chewed from our furnace ducts showing up on our heating vents. What the. . .? Then we hear rattling and knocking in a bathroom wall. Later our near-new washing machine starts gushing water from underneath and we find the drain pipe has been chewed, as well as a large hole in the dry wall. Setting mouse traps yields nothing. We hate to use poison and have dead animals in the crawl space. We need a cat!

To be continued.



Memoir writing: six suggestions

  1. Keep a diary or journal. If you already write regularly, good for you. If not, start now and catch up as you can. I keep track of important events in a small notebook divided into months. There I note births, deaths, trips, visitors, when we got pets, etc. No details, just the basics. Travel journals note details of trips, and other notebooks contain notes for the memories which are written primarily on the computer. Part of a notebook could be dedicated to ideas for stories, essays, chapters, articles, or whatever you choose to call your divisions.
  2. Find your optimal writing situation, but beware. I’ve heard of writers who must use a particular pen or pencil, type of paper, place and time, and are unable to write when those requirements can’t be met. More than one writer has constructed the “perfect” writing place, custom built with new furniture, windows placed just so, art work carefully chosen, only to find that he/she couldn’t write a word there and retreated to the kitchen table or laptop in the Lazy Boy. Ideally, away from your optimal writing situation you can jot notes while waiting in the doctor’s office or airport, type on a laptop on the plane or in a motel room or on a picnic table. The impetus of the story should become more important than the where or how.
  3. Start with the easiest parts. That might be the story told over and over around the family table, the most vivid memory, the time you were happiest, the saddest, or the most traumatic experience of your life. I recently read a book saying to start with your first memory and work your way on decade by decade. I say NO! Even if you are writing an autobiography rather than a memoir, start with the most memorable events. My dear father started his life story over and over, trying to get the beginning just right. As a result, we have a record of less than the first quarter of his long eventful life. Also, he was using a word processor he didn’t understand and kept losing his work. Don’t make that mistake. As stated before, use the method most comfortable for you. Someone can transcribe it from tape recording or handwritten later.
  4. Write daily. Some experts stipulate a minimum, like ten minutes, and if you don’t know what to write, scribble something like “I don’t know what to write.” until the time is up. Baloney! Look at your notes about possible stories and choose one to start jotting memories: most embarrassing moment, funniest moment, etc. Freewrite without regard to spelling, punctuation, sentence structure or anything that might hinder getting words on the paper or screen. You can decide later what is worth revising. Of course “write daily” is an aspiration, not always realistic. But you may find that involved in a WIP,  your mind is often preoccupied with the story. I’m willing to include that process in “write daily” because I’ve found that all that remembering and mental organizing makes the physical process of words written much faster. Another caveat: only thinking about writing does not result in a manuscript!
  5. As you complete your stories, start considering focus and organization. The classic advice is to start with the different: the day of the horrific diagnosis, the lover leaving, the death, the birth of the child who is different. You can then write flashbacks to fill in details. Lacking an outstanding event, you might choose a story that illustrates your theme. A memoir is not an autobiography, birth, year by year to present (or death, if writing for another), but a period of time or related events. Some writers have recorded more than one memoir. A famous contemporary autobiographical writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, still a young man, has written an astonishing six hefty volumes so far.
  6.  Consider what your “theme”  is. It may be simply to preserve memories for family and friends. You might choose, as my parents did, to include some genealogical information before relating their own stories. Memoirs may be focused on conquering illness or substance dependence or forgiving abusive relationships. They may be primarily focused on revenge, like Mommy Dearest or see how great I am, like The Art of the Deal, or poor me, like Wild. Or, more likely, a collection of memories, good and bad, a summary of your life or that of a loved one you’re writing for. Related to theme will be your eventual title especially if you’re writing to attract an audience beyond friends and family. Otherwise, Memories of ____may suffice.

Cremation or embalming?

I just returned from Colorado, an eight + hour trip by plane for me, to meet my brother, sister, and aunt from the Phoenix area in Denver, then driving another two hours east into the vast prairie where our ancestors homesteaded, to bury my parents. To bury their ashes, to be exact. Dad died and was cremated in 2004. Mother died last September. A cousin had made a handsome walnut box for their ashes and they were buried in a plot purchased by my grandfather in 1923 where he and my grandmother are buried.

Mother’s instructions were explicit: their ashes were to be mixed together and buried together. After 67 years together it was appropriate. And I do mean together, as farmers, ranchers, and then as minister and wife, it was pretty much 24/7 for 67 years.

We held hands around that small hole in the ground and said our prayers, our goodbyes, and that was it. Of course there had been earlier memorial services with many mourners and memories shared and pot luck dinners to enjoy.

We had not been subjected to choosing expensive coffins with the most comfy satin resting places, guaranteed waterproof, and feeling obligated to “view” the embalmed, plumped, groomed, beautified body, good as new. Nor did friends and relatives feel obligated to spend big $ on flower arrangements to be disposed of somewhere.

But still, carrying out our parent’s wishes cost enough to feed hungry families for weeks in our country or perhaps months in Africa.

Now I understand that some religions frown on “ashes to ashes to ashes, dust to dust” final disposition of the dead. But if they believe the physical body is necessary for resurrection day, what do they think may remain after years or decades in the ground? Even in the most expensive coffins?

My husband Mark and I and my sister have expressed our wishes for our cremated remains to be even more simplified: no tombstone, no specific burial place. Just remember us for who we were.


Peaceful respite

Sailing on Lake of the Woods
Sailing on Lake of the Woods


My father, a hard-working goal-driven dreamer who managed to attain goals seemingly beyond his reach, often said, “Most people are so busy earning a living  they don’t take time to live.” As a devout Christian, he insisted that Sunday was a day of worship and rest. Neighboring ranchers said he would never succeed if he didn’t work seven days a week, but he proved them wrong.

Writers as well as others absorbed in a daily grind should consider time out from the daily grind, especially away from electronics and absorbed in the beauty of nature, a prescription for mental recharging. We just spent such a week at Lake of the Woods in southern Oregon.

Gone fishin’

We’re headed out to Lake of the Woods to camp and fish and commune with nature for a few days. Though I must say how fortunate we are to live on five acres of tall Douglas Fir, Ponderosa, Incense Cedar, Madrone and other trees and woods plants. We  have a Mediterranian-type climate that supports heath, heather, all manner of herbs, camillas, azaleas and even magnolias, all surrounded by evergreen wooded hills. I’ll try to post some photos from around our house.