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.

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.

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.

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

Day 1 – A Personal Writing Retreat

The Old Pendola Ranch

The Old Pendola Ranch

As I turned off Highway 49 onto Pendola Road, traveling to the Skyline Harvest Retreat Center, it was like traveling through time.  I followed what was once a narrow dirt road that early Gold Rush settlers had carved from the hills,  scanning the downslope for vestiges of old mines and water ditches while staying alert for on-coming cars around the many blind curves.   Further along, the woods opened up into the pastoral Pendola Ranch  – where hillsides were once covered with vineyards until Prohibition stepped in and hacked the copper stills to pieces.

.Road into Skyline Harvest

Passing through the gate to Skyline Harvest

Bullards Bar ReservoirBullards Bar Reservoir is to my left.

I settle into The Hermitage.  It’s too perfect!

The Hermitage

 A corner table for eating and writing, a futon couch, meditation chair and kitchen fill up the main room.  The single bed is in an alcove tucked behind a folding wooden screen, and a modern bathroom with shower is in a separate room. Two chairs wait on the deck for watching wildlife in the small clearing outside.

Work Table

Bedroom AlcoveKitchen

11 AM.  Food, books, laptop, clothes all in place, I fix a bowl of soup and watch the rain drizzle outside.  After a short nap and cup of coffee, it’s time to write.  I’ve decided arbitrarily to set a goal of 7,500 words for these 48 hours.  Let’s see – that comes to 156 words an hour.  Can I write in my sleep?  I plunge ahead, not knowing where my story is going next.

Though I know the general arc of my novel, The Desk, I’ve learned to quiet my mind with meditation before starting, then have faith that the characters will surprise me.  And they do. Like today, Hummer appeared.  I’m mid-way through the future section – Year 2088 – my prospective  great-granddaughter Amisha’s story of struggling to survive on a planet irreparably damaged by man’s impact.   Hummer and his woman, Rapalini are one of the old folks who fled to the hills early on.  What do they know?

3:30 PM.  I’m startled by a knock on the door. It’s Diane Pendola who (along with Teresa Hahn) founded and is Director of Skyline Harvest.  I’ve asked for some of her time to help me think  things through – drawing on her experience with indigenous wisdom, Gestalt Therapy, theology, The Enneagram and her mentors, Ramon Panikar, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, to name a few.

I’m interested in the questions raised in my story –  not so much the answers.  Diane asks if mankind can move  from an era that’s been shaped by man’s ability to circumvent the natural checks and balances of nature,  into one that recognizes that we are part of a universal consciousness? If not, what kind of world will Amisha live in?  That’s where my story goes.

We jump up two hours later – time has flown into the dinner hour.  Diane departs, and I take a cool walk along the firebreak road to watch the golden sun set into the departing clouds.

Skyline Sunset

Skyline Sunset

A fox scurries past as I return to The Hermitage and prepare my dinner, heating with the wood stove instead of the gas range.  My gourmet husband has sent me here with a chicken cacciatora, a beef stew, garden salad, and a bottle of red wine.  He’s amazing and I’m so lucky!

After dinner, I check my word count.  Yikes, only 366 words!!  This is going to be a long evening!  But then, that’s what I’m here for.

But my cello also calls me.  I unzip its case intending to practice a few scales, but  instead, I  play for an hour – improvising in  C minor harmonic – a moody, searching key. Crickets add a chirping accompaniment, though I’m too tired to see if there’s any correlation with my playing.

10 PM.  Off to bed.  Got lots of words to write tomorrow!

September 30, 2013

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

“Our Foremothers” 1915

Emily's 4th July Speech 1

Hey, enough about our Forefathers this Independence Day!  Back in 1915, my Great Grandmother Emily Hoppin gave this speech about “Our ForeMothers” to a Fourth of July celebration in Yolo County, California.

I’ve transcribed her words from my copy of her handwritten notes.   To read her full speech go to  Emily’s Speech.                      Here are some excerpts:

“OUR FOREMOTHERS”

For over a hundred years, on this anniversary of our nation’s birth, men have written and poets have sung of our forefathers.  Today, for the first time in the history of – well – I will not say our nation, but will say of Yolo County, you are to hear not only of your forefathers but your foremothers, and I wish I had the eloquent tongue to tell of them.

Neither do I today expect to give a small meed of praise to these foremothers of ours – but I would try to win for them some of the gratitude we give our forefathers.

 Often women are the leaders and organizers of great enterprises.  Our own country owes its discovery to the masterful mind of a woman. (note: I assume Queen Isabella of Spain, who financed Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World.  She also took an unusual interest in the Native Americans he brought back to Spain as slaves, by ordering the Indians returned to their homeland and freed.  However, she and her husband, Ferdinand, also started the Spanish Inquisition!  Now back to 1915).  

In the history of this beautiful state of ours where the pioneers of ’49 were enduring their hardships – the women were by their side and endured with them the hardships and lessons of the plains. 

Women have however been content with no praise at all, or the praise such as the old pioneer settler out west gave to his wife when an old grizzly bear came into his cabin one day.

          Perhaps you recall the man’s scream to his frau. 

         There’s a bear in the kitchen as big as a cow. 

          And how she advised him to murder him then. 

          And how his reply was, Yes! Betty, I will if you’ll first venture in. 

          So Betty leaped up and a poker she seized. 

          While her man shut the door and outside he squeezed 

          And then you remember, she laid on the blows. 

          While her man, through the keyhole kept shouting with din,

          Well done, my brave Betty.  Now hit him again.

           So with rapping and poking, poor Betty alone

          at last laid old Bruin as dead as a stone. 

          Then when the brave man saw the bear was no more,

         he ventured to poke himself in at the door.

          And off to the neighbors he hastened to tell,

          all the wonderful things –that morning befell. 

          And he published the wonderful story afar,

          How “Me and my Betty we just slaughtered that bar.”

Now my dear friends there is nothing personal in this story – nothing that is applicable to you – for you have never said to us in regard to taking hold of work.  Yes!  Darling we will, if you’ll first venture in.   We all know how energetic you men of Yolo County are, and how anxious you are that our county shall be well governed.

How glad you are to give due praise to women today, we who are proud to stand beside you and tell of the grand women of the past. Tis like stirring living embers when one calls to mind “all the achings and the quakings of the times that tried men’s souls.”

(Her speech continues with descriptions of women’s roles in the major events of America’s history.  The complete speech is on my website:  Emily’s Speech).

We who live in these days of railroads and telegraphs and books cannot realize the lonely days and nights of these women.

Speak of (women’s) brave words, their true hearts, their noble deeds.  Tell of their purity, their faith, their heroism, and let this fourth of July celebrate their deeds, as well as he deeds of our forefathers – and if between the living and the dead, is stretched, as some believe, a spirit wire, let it signal to them the words we speak today, and may their spirits – our guardian angels watch o’er our  country and may the God of our fore fathers and mothers, who through the gloom and night has guided our people. 

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

Great-Grandmother Emily’s Vision of Universal Peace -1915

I was awestruck when I read this 1915 article about my Great Grandmother Emily Hoppin (the inspiration for Eliza in “The Desk”) after she was elected President of the California Federation of Women’s Clubs.

Mrs. Hoppin 1915

“Mrs. Hoppin is an optimist . . . even in the face of the greatest war of all ages (WWI), she still hopes that work for peace, which she feels must be largely woman’s work, will not – cannot – be in vain. She anticipates that the condition we pray for, the prevalence of an effective sentiment for universal peace, may come about suddenly and unexpectedly, likening it to the movement for the abolition of slavery, which seemed a far, Eutopian vision in the minds of its supporters. Practically all they dared hope for was the restriction and limiting of the traffic – and then, of a sudden, Emancipation! – more glorious than their fondest dreams! And so she prays it may be with the peace sentiment.”                                               (The Overland Monthly, 1915 – “The New Executive in Feminine Clubdom”)

Though I also consider myself an optimist, I get easily discouraged by what feels like a tsunami of greed and self-interest. I lose hope. Think of today’s big issues: gun control, the Afghanistan war, reproductive choices, the right to marry, genetically-modified foods, etc. (obviously reflects my liberal perspective). Sure, I sign internet petitions, donate to causes, make an occasional call to elected representatives, but I recognize a little voice that says, “I’ll do what I can, but it’s probably hopeless – too much money and corporate interest backing it.”

And then I read my Great-Grandmother’s words and come face to face with the paucity of my vision. Remember Ken Keyes’ book, The Hundredth Monkey? He wrote: “When only a limited number of people know of a new way, it may remain the conscious property of these people. But there is a point at which if only one more person tunes-in to a new awareness, a field is strengthened so that this awareness reaches almost everyone!”

I return to Great Grandma’s vision that “universal peace may come about suddenly and unexpectedly, likening it to the movement for the abolition of slavery, which seemed a far, Eutopian vision in the minds of its supporters. . . then, of a sudden, Emancipation! – more glorious than their fondest dreams!”

I realize now my work is to join with others to hold a strong, clear image of the world I want. A world where guns are registered like cars, and users are tested for skills and safety. Where any committed couple can marry. Where the earth has a sustainable population because women can control conception. Where we learn to live with less energy … and so on. I encourage you to think about the images you hold – and how they can add to the tipping point.

 

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

Seismic Shift in Access to Information

p_g10afjmr5gq0462_bThere’s been a seismic shift in access to information since I first did serious research on my Great Grandmother, Emily Hoppin, almost 25 years ago.  Back then (before Internet, mind you) I had to travel to Woodland to do on-site research in the Yolo County Archives – a small building in an industrial section of town.  When I found a newspaper article I wanted to copy of my gold-rush era ancestor, the kindly woman held a column-wide copier over the paper, and reproduced the article in that filmy fax-type paper (print is faded and useless today)

I’ve also relied on my Great-Grandmother’s scrapbook (patented in 1873 by Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain) that contains her pasted newspaper clippings of family deaths, her speeches, and the hot political contest for President of Federation of Women’s Clubs of California (which she won -1915).  Someday, I’ll make it part of Woodland’s historical archives.

I’ve found Ancestry.com helpful for locating records of births, deaths and census reports.  Interesting to see who else was living on the farm.

But recently Stephanie Korney, a friend and a founder of the Camptonville Historical Society, emailed me an article about my Great Grandmother from the 1915 Overland Journal. (Stephanie said after seeing my blog, she just couldn’t help digging around herself!)  I thought I’d seen most things printed on my ancestors, but here was an article filled with delicious details about this woman.  Wow!  Made Facebook look pale!

In the last 25 years, the Internet has  democratized access to information.  Google Books, a service from Google Inc. scans the full text of books and old magazines, converts text using optical character recognition, and stores it in its digital database. There’s been a lot of controversy over copyright issues and fair use.  That aside, I’m delighted to be able to search for Emily Hoppin, Yolo, California and find 30 sources of information on her.  I’ll put some on my website, and some of it will be incorporated into The Desk as a backdrop for Eliza, the fictionalized woman inspired by my Great-Grandmother’s life work for California, Women’s Suffrage, Temperance, Water, Farming and hopes for Universal Peace.