Family Myth-Makers

A cherished story in my family is that Great Grandma came to California by covered wagon during the 1849 Gold Rush.  Only she didn’t.  Hard as I try to hold on to the version of my great grandparents making  a tortuous six-month wagon “road trip” from Michigan to California to start  a new life together, the evidence just isn’t there.

Nonetheless, I refuse to be swayed by facts. So what if dusty historical biographies and frayed yellow obituaries record that it was actually 1874 when Emily Anna Bacon Hoppin accompanied her new husband, Charles, back to his 800 acre ranch in Yolo, California. She might even have taken the new transcontinental railroad, recently opened in 1869 for all we know.  But inside of me is a small child who won’t release her fingers around a favorite shiny pebble. In my heart, Great Grandmother did come to California by covered wagon during the Gold Rush.

“It’s the storyteller’s right to embellish the story,” my Grandma Dot-Dot once confessed as she spun yet another legendary tale about her mother’s life in the late 1800’s. I interviewed Grandma before she died and transcribed her stories into a book which I gave to the extended family. It was a meritage of memory and facts. From her child’s-eye perspective of early California ranch life, Grandma fashioned her mother into a larger-than-life figure who was not to be reckoned with. “Emily Hoppin was known as a woman who stood by her principles,” Grandma told us. “Why she and her women friends threatened to close down the local saloons so many times, they were known as the Three Musketeers. Grandma delighted in planting family stories into our fertile imaginations. She was our myth-maker.

I learned from Grandma Dot-Dot that stories are more important than facts.  Stories nurture the heart; facts languish in the head.  This is why I describe the novel I’m working on as part historical fiction, part memoir, and part future-fantasy. Despite my struggle to be historically accurate, I’m finding that the family’s mythology is much more enduring.

In my next blog, I’ll describe my discovery of an historical detail while traveling through the Nevada desert – a fact that somehow never made it into the family’s records or mythology.

© All materials copyright Shirley DicKard, 2015, except as otherwise noted.

Back to Blogging

5 am at desk

Well, folks, after taking a year and a half off, I’m back. I don’t promise to blog on a regular basis, but I do promise to write as I’m inspired.  I don’t know how daily bloggers have the time!  Time?  Isn’t that supposed to come with retirement?  Hardly. My days are filled with more than ever – but at least I’m doing what I love – writing about the history and landscape of women, California, and  the future we’re shaping  – all part of my novel – The Desk(Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020)

In my last blog (April 2014 – really?!) I had just taken on the editorship of our community’s small newspaper – The Camptonville Courier – rescuing it from near drowning. Nineteen issues later, it’s again thriving.

In spite of being distracted by running a newspaper (which I love), I’ve made decent progress on my novel this year. I’m semi-disciplined to rise before dawn and with a steaming cup of coffee, write for a few hours. The darkness keeps the real world out, and I can float back into Great-Grandmother’s world of 1850-1915, or forward to the future world of Great-Granddaughter, Amisha, end of this century and into the 2100’s, or stay right in the present and witness the slow deterioration of our planet.

Like the racing tortoise, (slowly, but Shirley), I’ve been steadily working on this book for over six years now.  As I look back at 2014, I’m amazed at some of my accomplishments.

First, the novel is now fully fleshed out, thanks to a few personal writing retreats at Skyline Harvest Retreat Center.  Having days alone with few interruptions enables me to immerse myself in the other worlds I’m creating.  There’s an unseen energy at Skyline that beckons me into a much deeper place.

I’ve made a few historical site visits.  Woodland, Yolo County, is where my Great-Grandmother lived and worked. I drove past where the family farm used to be (now a trailer, rusted cars and barking dogs), and left a bouquet of lavender on her grave in the Woodland cemetery. This summer I followed traces of her little-known life in the Nevada Desert before California – but that’s another blog!

I’m now standing at a new plateau in writing this novel, getting ready to interweave the three women’s stories with the legacy they inherited with the desk. Time to get out the cork board and move those 3X5 cards around.

© All materials copyright Shirley DicKard, 2015, except as otherwise noted.

Coming Up for Air

spiral_fire

“Watch out for potholes in the river bottom – step in one and you’re gone forever.” My mother’s words warned us children as we waded  in the swift currents of the American River on a hot Sacramento day, but she could have been warning me about my recent life.

Taking on the Editorship of the Camptonville Courier has been like slipping into a pothole and I’m only just now coming up for air. For the past three months I’ve been navigating the unfamiliar world of publishing, where I’ve been pushed up a steep learning curve, challenged to learn a foreign vocabulary, and driven on by unrelenting deadlines.

Three editions later, I emerge from my hole and look around at my “normal life.” Though I vowed I wouldn’t sacrifice writing on my novel or practicing the cello, that’s exactly what happened. So yesterday, when I realized that I had actually written, practiced, and planted seeds in my vegetable garden, I felt a surge of hope. It’s said recovery sometimes sneaks up on you!

The uncanny thing is that this experience has found a way into my writing. At times, I don’t know whether I’m writing a novel, or the novel is writing my life.

Here’s a scene from The Desk, touched with magical realism as the present-time character, Christie is unknowingly nudged by the apparitions of her great-grandmother and great-granddaughter conversing at her bedside as she sleeps.  (Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020, and “Christie” is now “Harmony.”)

“Everything has the same urgency to her,”  says the short, plump one with the stiff lace collar that prickles her neck. “She’s paralyzed by her despair for the future and damming up her own power.”

“And thinks she can avoid it by saying she’s retired. Now where the hell did she get that idea?” The tall one flicks her long sandy-colored braid over her shoulder and crosses her arms in disgust.

“She doesn’t know the desk’s power.”

“Maybe the desk needs a little help?”

“Should we?”

“A little nudge?”

“No, I’m thinking something bigger.”

*  *  *  

The night is deep and dark when I awake making plans – not in my usual sleepless pattern where thoughts wiz across my mind like neutrinos in a vacuum chamber. These particular thoughts are organized, concrete. I observe them, allowing each one to pass by as in meditation, waiting for them to dissipate as they usually do so I can return to sleep.

But they don’t. My eyes dart back and forth as I listen intently to what seems to be outlandish plans to run the community newspaper.   In one swift move, I am out of bed and seated at my desk, taking notes.

© All materials copyright Shirley DicKard, 2014, except as otherwise noted.

Acting Locally

Just when I thought my life was perfectly full, I take on something really big.  It wasn’t my idea – well, of course it was – but somehow I had made the decision without telling myself.  I realized this when I woke up at 4 am and started writing notes on how I was going to run the local community newspaper.

The Camptonville CourierBeing Editor of The Camptonville Courier was never, ever on my retirement radar.  Five months ago the last volunteer Editor left, and though people in our small town said how much they missed the monthly “community voice,” no one has come forward to take it on.  Certainly not me!  I’m a writer.  That doesn’t mean I know publishing or want those responsibilities to take over my life.

Yet, something’s right.  Here I am, one month after that fateful night, and loving what’s happening.  Instead of feeling overwhelmed, I feel supported and delightfully challenged by all I’m learning about running a newspaper. More importantly, I have a crew of twelve community volunteers who are helping by taking on pieces of the work.

What cinched it for me is this is one thing I can do for my community. I’ve often grappled with what is right action, considering all the suffering and planetary deterioration around us.  Not surprising, Christie, the present-time character in the novel I’m working on, grapples with the same question. She knows that by the end of the century, her future great-granddaughter Amisha will be grappling with the impact of the actions we do/don’t do today.  Here’s a draft excerpt from The Desk (Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020, and “Christie” is now “Harmony)

“It seems no matter what route I take, I always end up wallowing in the same pool.  Signs are everywhere.  My humming laptop has already collected the morning’s emails – Outrage! Warning!  Take Action! Thank god lots of people are working hard for causes, yet I sit here paralyzed by despair.  I’m not a hero.  I’m just me, living my life with right intentions as best I can, yet sensing there’s a huge tsunami coming toward us.

I go downstairs and refill my coffee cup.  On the way back up, I rationalize that in small ways I am doing something.  I grow my food, reuse cloth shopping bags, frequent farmer’s markets, and shop locally before checking Amazon. I’m a poster child for “One Hundred Ways to Save the Planet.”

Seated at the desk, my new fountain pen is poised in my hand, ready to write. I’m in love with it. Compared to a ball point, the ink flows almost as fast as my thoughts.

     Amisha taps me on the shoulder.

     “Thank you.”

     “For what?” I ask, startled at her voice in my head.

    “For water.  The hand pump still works.”

     “Oh that!” I laugh softly.  My husband wanted a fancy solar pump and back-up system, but I told him I wanted simple.  Too much high-tech stuff makes me feel helpless.

     “You planted fruit and nut trees,” she continues.

     “It’s what we back-to-the-landers did.”

     “But they lasted.  Even without anyone’s care.”

      “So the drought-tolerant ones really were?”  I’m impressed.

     “I couldn’t have survived without them.”

     I shift in my seat, feeling uneasy.  “But it wasn’t enough, was it?”

     “No, it wasn’t.” Her voice is cold and dry inside my head. I cover my eyes, despair drawing me down like quicksand.

© All materials copyright Shirley DicKard, 2014, except as otherwise noted.

Winter Solstice

A Reflection on the Winter Solstice,  by Diane Pendola.

Sunrise - space station ATT00089

We are at the threshold of winter.
This is an in-between time, a time when what is stirring to be born is still to become manifest.
The life is still germinating beneath the snow, or kicking in the womb, or agitating our minds.
But our course of action is not yet clear and so we wait a little longer.
Tomorrow the darkness will begin to recede.
Slowly the days will begin to lengthen.
Tonight is the longest night.
But the turn in the season is here.
The Sun is on the ascendancy.
Our hearts stir with hope.

Sending you blessings of the Light!

 

Used with permission by Diane Pendola

From Earthlines, December 2008

 Skyline Harvest Eco-Contemplative Center

Writing the Middle – Like Crossing a Desert

Immigrant Trail  Nevada Desert
Immigrant Trail – Nevada Desert

Sometimes I feel I’m writing across a desert  – that vast stretch between the beginning and ending of a novel.  The only way through is to take it one step at a time.

My Great-Grandmother had to do it literally.  Immigrants on the California Trail would make one last water stop in their covered wagons before leaving the Humboldt Sink where the river fanned out and disappeared into the Nevada desert. Forty miles and several days of waterless, hot parched desert lay ahead and there was no choice but to roll through.  Along the way animals died, prized possessions were jettisoned, despair set in.  Rather like writing through the middle of a story, I’m finding.

It’s humbling to learn that a great story takes more than a great idea. Writers have to craft this passage well so the reader wants to stay with the story.  But it’s also where authors can get stuck in boggy, soggy ground.  Between the beginning and end, there are elements of plot and character development, back stories, turning points, cliff hangers, triumphs, setbacks, reversals, and ever-present conflict and tension.  Add to this, layers of character arc, motivations, subplots, story theme, and . . .  Whew!  It’s why I immerse myself in writing classes, conferences, critique groups, and reading, reading, reading.

When will The Desk be finished?  Well, I’d say I’m about two-thirds across the desert.  Like Beulah the Ox who detected the faintest whiff of water and quickened her pace, I can feel the pieces coming together, but I’ve still many miles to go.  And when I do finally tie it all together, I’ll still have a steep granite mountain range to traverse, called Revisions.

(Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020)

© All materials copyright Shirley DicKard, 2012 – 2013, except as otherwise noted.

Beginnings

Emergence  Utah Petroglyph
Emergence
Utah Petroglyph

I think some beginnings are only recognized in retrospect.   You’ll be amazed at what you’ll be doing, the voice in my head told me.  It’s not even on your radar.  I’d been pondering my up-coming retirement and heard this not once, but many times – usually when meditation had cleared my mind of clutter.

When my sisters visited me in 2008, I read them a short fictional piece I’d written about inheriting the family desk. That was it – one page.  I made a few revisions and put it away.  Later I wrote another short story of an ancient woman obsessed with horrific visions of the future who died holding an acorn to her breast.  In one of those “ah-hah!” leaps, I knew this would be the acorn/oak tree from which the desk would be made.

Family women who wrote on the desk started lining up, starting with my activist Great Grandmother who farmed California’s north central valley after the 1849 Gold Rush, and ending with a present time woman struggling with how to live on a degraded earth. I thought that was it until the “visitation” one night from the future – Amisha, my great-granddaughter.

The mystery held within the family desk currently encompasses three women and the future.  I hope that’s it!  With my ending already in place (see my December 7 post), I have only to cross the desert to bridge the beginning with the ending  (my next post).  As I look back, the beginning of “The Desk” did sneak in under my radar, but now it’s an integral part of my life.  And yes, I am amazed!

(Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020)

© All materials copyright Shirley DicKard, 2012 – 2013, except as otherwise noted.

Endings

5 am at deskI’m often asked when my book will be finished – the novel I’ve been working on for four or five years now. “Who knows?” I shrug and sigh.  It’s become a journey unto itself.

It’s not that I don’t want it to end, for I know the last scene.  My friend Roger Rapp laid it out for me during a dinner conversation a few years ago.  He said John Irving always writes the last paragraph first, then writes toward it as if it were a piece of music he could hear.

Roger, who understood the underlying theme of my story, looked me in the eye and told me what the last paragraph of “The Desk” would be. I remember the goose bumps.  He was absolutely right on.  Roger died suddenly the next month, but his gift of the ending will endure.

(Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020)

© All materials copyright Shirley DicKard, 2012 – 2013, except as otherwise noted.

Travel Journals – When Less is More

me & g-girlsLooking out Amtrack’s over-sized train window, my three grandchildren and I decide what we’ll draw in the Travel Journals I gave them.  I share my own tiny journal filled with ink and watercolor memories of Hawaii, Utah’s Red Canyons, Italy, friends and family. My favorite pages are scenes looking out windows.

I think Travel Journals have a unique way of capturing memories.  Photographs may mirror reality, diaries describe with word-filled pages, but with a few wispy brush strokes and well- chosen words, my Travel Journal reflects the essence of my experience.

Unlike my talent for finding  just the right word to describe a scene or feeling, my drawing abilities stopped in 5th grade when art was dropped from the curriculum.  As an adult, I took art classes, hoping to learn to draw something more representative than my primitive head profile with bulbous nose and thin mouth plopped on a flat face.  No luck.

So I now just sketch impressions – a few brush strokes for a waving hand,  M&S 2purposely wiggly lines for squared buildings, a single up-curved mouth on a face, you get the idea.  Like brush strokes, I add a few spontaneous words to the page and Voila!  – a treasure journal of richly-remembered memories.

 Prity Truckee River
Prity Truckee River

As our train chugged along the tracks over the Sierras to Reno, the grandchildren started their journals like natural artists and writers.

The phonetically spelled “Traval Churnals” (!) were filled with 5, 7, and 9 year old drawings of Autumn color on the Truckee River, Papa’s profiled head, distant Sierra Nevada Mountains, close-up river rocks, ducks and later, a pink sunrise through the hotel window.

Mountain Sunset
Mountain Sunset

No one said “I can’t draw,” or “this isn’t good.”

 Reno Ducks
Reno Ducks

I’ve been working on enjoying life more with less shoulds, less structure, less control and less things.  And in my writing, working on replacing wordiness with a few brush-stroked words, trusting that readers will fill in with their own experiences and imagination.

© All materials copyright Shirley DicKard, 2012 – 2013, except as otherwise noted.

High Desert

Malheur Landscape
Malheur Landscape

Autumn stirs a deep longing in my soul.  I know it’s time to let go of my leaves, turn south, find home.

Contrary to instinct, my husband and I head north to the high desert of south-eastern Oregon.  Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a landing place on the Pacific Flyway, where the lake and high desert nurture birds migrating north and southwards.   We were late.  Most birds– Sand Hill Cranes, Geese, Ducks, Swans – had already left.  We hoped to find them on our return to California’s Central Valley happily ensconced in the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge for the winter.  They were.

Although we found over 25 bird species at Malheur, what we really discovered was High Desert.  In the absence of the usual hundreds of thousands of migrating birds, the landscape was laid bare, revealing muted shades of autumn orange, yellow and purple. We circled the perimeter of the 30 mile-long Steens Mountain one day, then drove to the 9,733 foot summit the next, crunching in the snow to peer down the glacial valleys or watch Bighorned Sheep.  As Duncan, our Naturalist Guide from the Malheur Field Station, interwove stories of geological, avian, symphonic and human intrigue, I pondered that all places on earth must have their storytellers, artists and musicians.

Nine days on the road was enough for our weary bones.  My friend Nancy suggested that maybe we take these road trips because it feels so wonderful to be back home, snuggled in our own beds, with dreams of the full moon rising over the desert.

Moon over Malheur
Moon over Malheur

“The silence in these empty lands is long.” 

(Ursula K. LeGuin,  from the book Out Here – Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country)

© All materials copyright Shirley DicKard, 2012 – 2013, except as otherwise noted.