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.

Day 3 – A Personal Writing Retreat

119 Autumn ColorOh, how did I sleep  in ’til 8:00 am, when mornings are my best time to write?  I’m into my new retreat rhythm of coffee, breakfast (eggs from my chickens), meditation then writing.  The autumn foliage scintillates in the breeze outside, making me wish I’d brought my watercolors!

I’m on a roll now.  Present-day Christie’s chapters are fleshing out, fueled by my conversation with Diane about seeing her through the lens of The Enneagram.  I’m already familiar with this ancient way of understanding human motivation and behavior, based on nine different personality patterns. In fact, after living with my main characters for awhile, I’ve figured out what personality type they most likely are. It’s become easier to write how each might express anger, stress, vulnerability, strength, and joy.

For example:  Christie is a “9” – the Mediator.  She wants her world to be peaceful and serene and not be bothered by the competing demands of the world’s problems on her attention and energy.  She sees all viewpoints and can’t decide, so she goes numb.  Inspired by Diane’s comments, Christie will now have a few more glasses of wine and declare she’ll deal with the world’s issues tomorrow.  (Yes, Scarlet).

(Note: “The Desk” was the former working title for “Heart Wood” before 2020.   “Christie” became the character “Harmony.”)

Oops. . . A text message beeps from my iphone.  It’s my brother in law RV-ing  out in the Nevada desert.  They’re in Ely asking where the Immigrant Trail museum is I said they shouldn’t miss.  I text back that it’s Elko, not Ely, and it’s the California Trail Interpretive Center.  Good luck I think, as I sit back and mull over what just transpired – he in Nevada, me in Northern California. Being instantly accessible through technology definitely has its pluses.  If my children were still teens, I’d really appreciate it.  But I sense we’re slowly raising the bar of our expectations about immediate access to information and each other. Hey, after all, I’m on a retreat! (Guess I could have turned the dang thing off).

3pm.   I continue writing until it’s time to pack up.  I’ve got to make it to town for my cello lesson.  When I close up Scrivener, I see my grand total for the two days is 3,273 words.  Not quite half.  I guess I’d expected that if I had unlimited time to myself with no interruptions, I could write to the sky.  But there’s still  interruptions even on a retreat.  The difference is that here, I always went right back to writing.  At home, I would have drifted off, distracted.

Shirley
Shirley

I’m most thankful for this time to move within my own rhythms.  I also know I’ma lot further along in understanding some of the deeper currents in my story:  How three family women, each living centuries apart, are bound together by an ancient woman’s wisdom for the earth’s future – a message held deep within the heartwood of The Desk.

Skyline Meadow
Skyline Meadow

It’s really easy to arrange your own personal – or couples – or group retreat.  Diane and Teresa are warm and hospitable while honoring guest’s need for privacy and quiet.  Scott and Mike are around to help if needed.  Everyone’s a short walk away through the woods .  Skyline’s 45 minutes from Nevada City/Grass Valley in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Northern California, and a 2 hour drive from the Sacramento airport.  Call Diane at 530-288-0308 or email:  skyline@gotsky.com   (www.ecocontemplative.org)

Now, back to my life!

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

Day 2 – A Personal Writing Retreat

The Bed Nook
The Bed Nook

I reluctantly leave my cozy down comforter,  knowing I have miles of words to write today.  After yesterday’s drizzle, the sun is invigorating.  First, a tall mug of black coffee and a bowl of hot oatmeal, then I open my laptop to where I left off in the Scrivener program.

Hummer and Rupalini pop up on the screen to greet me.  They’re the old couple who escaped the growing dystopic world of the mid-2000’s and settled in the hills.   He’s saving his last 2 bullets from his now empty stockpile;  her mind long gone, she’s obsessed with finding out when the world turned.

After that chapter, I return to the present day narrator, wondering what will move her from feeling overwhelmed and hopeless about the state of the world and get her motivated into action.

Skyline Meadow
Skyline Meadow

Scott knocks at my door with a refilled jar of brown sugar and the most recent copy of Yes! Magazine from Diane.  I’m drawn into conversation with him, and write down his blog,  The Rambling Taoist.  He came to Skyline Harvest for a short visit and stayed. Skyline attracts such interesting people!

I write all morning, take a break for lunch and a short nap, then continue into the afternoon.  My word count is mounting, but not fast enough.  I console myself that the time I spend thinking through larger aspects of this project doesn’t show up as word counts.

There’s a lot of good stuff in Yes! Magazine’s Summer 2013 issue.  Here’s a few notes I took:

  • Will we turn against one another in a struggle for the last resources, or turn to one another in cooperation and community?  (Sarah van Gelder)
  • How to create new cultural stories and what we consider sources of true happiness? (van Gelder)
  • Definition of Revelation (Latin) and Apocalypse (Greek) is “A lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something hidden; coming to clarity.”  (Robert Jensen)
  • It’s an illusion we can maintain an extractive economy indefinitely.  Our planet is not just a mine and a landfill. For some, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of air conditioning! (Jensen)
  • “Prefigurative  Interventions” – Playful Protests, Pranks & Serious Works of Imagination.”  Look it up!   Beautiful Trouble, a Toolbox for Revolution at  http://www.beautifultrouble.org

The Ranch House
The Ranch House

The afternoon sun beckons me out to pick some figs from the huge tree next to the Ranch House.  I also explore the other buildings for future stays.  Each one is cozy in a grandmotherly kind of way.

The Cabin's Livingroom
The Cabin’s Livingroom

The Cabin
The Cabin

Gazebo
The Gazebo

Next time I come to Skyline Harvest, I might stay at the Cabin with its multi-level outside deck.  Or if I had a group, we’d take over The Ranch House.  I probably won’t have time to spend writing in the screened Gazebo, but maybe next visit.

After dinner and another session with Diane, then an hour of cello practice, I’m revitalized to write again.  Work Table -NightThe moths check in on me against the lighted window, wondering how I’m doing.

When I close the laptop at 11:30 pm, I’m at 2,159 words for the day, for a grand total of 2,525.  Not as many as I’d hoped.

As my Grandma Moffett would say, “Well, it is.”

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