Wednesday, February 23, 2011

In a Sleepy Hollow

It may seem insane to begin the sequel to an unpublished novel. In fact, it may seem crazy to begin writing a seventh novel when the first six haven’t been sold. I said as much to fellow writer James, who, in fact, gave me an are-you-insane look. “Why would you quit writing?” he asked. Oh, I don’t know James, maybe it’s time to be a grown up and make a living doing something I can feel proud of, like cleaning toilets.

James wasn’t buying it. “You love the process. You have a roof over your head, food on your table, you’re good to go.” Not exactly a pep talk, but enough encouragement to send me to my laptop and drag out an old memory, truly one of the more frightening, inexplicable moments of my life. One of those am I crazy moments.

This opening scene is very loosely based on a night in the seventies. I was fourteen. My mother was dying of cancer. Her doctors had said there was nothing more to be done. In a last ditch effort, my parents traveled to Mexico for laetrile treatments. I’d been left at home with my twenty-four year old brother, who decided sometime around my bedtime, to go to Canada for the weekend.

I spent that night alone. Or did I? I woke around 3 a.m., the stereo in the room down the hall blaring, the volume turned up as high as it could go. The house was dark. At first, I thought my brother had returned. But, no, he and his car were gone. The doors and windows were all locked. The stereo, an old fashioned turntable, was broken, and putting on a record required not just a push of button, but slipping the record into place, turning on the stereo, and placing the needle on the spinning record. I suppose It’s possible I did all of this while sleep walking and then returned to my bed only to be woken later…

Unlike Petra, I didn’t meet a demon (depending on how you categorize my brother… just kidding, love you, Dennis) and I don’t have a reasonable explanation for the blaring stereo.

In a Sleepy Hollow

Petra Baron couldn’t sleep.

The Santa Ana winds whistled through the canyon, spat dust and tossed the branches of trees. The wind seemed to be laughing at her. Not a hahaha aren’t we clever laughter, nor a teehee jokes on you giggle, but a cruel, moaning laughter that whistled through the stable, toyed at the window jambs and rattled the doors.

Petra fluffed her pillow, adjusted it so that she could see through the French doors without lifting her head. Out of the suburbs, away from streetlights, cars and the blue glare of neighboring TVs, the moon and stars carried more light. The late autumn moon, as big and as round as the pumpkins in the field, shone through the window and cast the room in a silver glow. Sleeping at the Jenson’s farm didn’t frighten her, even though she could see the golden eyes of the mountain lion pacing at the fringe of the property, looking for a hole in the fence, access to the animals safely tucked in the barn.

Since her return from England, she’d been training at the rifle range. She could shoot pistols as well as rifles. Determined to never again feel at any one’s mercy, she’d also enrolled in a martial arts program at the gym. Not that she’d try to Ninja kick a mountain lion, but should a horse scream or a sheep bleat she’d shoulder the shot gun and scare away the big cat.

Little cats, however, required another line of defense.

Petra shifted and tried to pull the quilt around her shoulders, but Magpie wouldn’t budge. Large, heavy, a glob of fur and drool, Magpie was a bed-hog. Magpie’s counterpart, Hector, preferred to sleep under the slipper chair. As was the case with so many couples, Magpie was emotionally needy and Hector was emotionally distant. Petra had tried locking the cats out of the bedroom. After all, they had a five thousand square foot hacienda at their disposal. Six unoccupied bedrooms, a den, a living room, a billiard room, they had free range. Petra only asked for one room, in fact, she’d have settle for one bed, but Magpie, as noisy as her name implied, refused to be shut out. And it didn’t really make sense to allow Magpie to share her space and not Hector. Who, by the way, snored. A malady typical of Persians.

Persians or mountain lions, which cat species did she prefer? Given a choice, she’d choose to be at home in her own bed, Frosty, her standard poodle asleep, sans snoring, at the foot of her bed, but the house-sitting gig at the Jensen’s paid well. She needed all the money she could lay her hands on if she wanted to attend Hudson River Academy, a small liberal arts college where Dr. Finch, the world’s leading professor of Elizabethan literature. Her dad would pony up for a state university, but he wasn’t interested in paying for ‘liberal farts.’ Petra began to mentally recalculate her finances and because money bored her she fell asleep listening to the wind’s laughter and Hector’s snore.


The wind whispers the prayers
Of all who live there
And carries them to heaven.
And the rain beats a time,
For those caught in rhyme,
For any who’ve lost life’s reason.

Petra bolted up and Magpie flew off the bed with a meow, her cry barely audible above the music. Pushing hair off her forehead, Petra tried to wake from the deafening dream. She swung her legs over the side of the bed, felt the cold tile floor beneath her feet. The music still played. Electric guitars. A keyboard. Drums. Seventies sound.

She oriented herself. Who’s here? Could the Jenson’s have returned? No, they had just posted pictures of the Vatican online less than two hours ago. Their son, Garth? He attended UCSB. A three hour drive. It must be Garth, she thought. She looked out the window for a car in the drive. No car. He would have put it in the garage. He’d have the remote. The wind had quieted, the trees had stopped dancing. Steam from the horse’s warm breath rose from the stable. On the side of the hill, on the far side of the fence, gold eyes watched her window. The mountain lion, threatening, but incapable of manning sound systems.

She took a deep calming breath. It had to be Garth. She waited for the music to die. She'd learned the hard way years ago that you just couldn’t wait for the hero to ride in on his stallion.

If there are stories in your stream,
Don’t let them stop you mid- dream,
They’re just pebbles for the tossing.
They’re just mountains for the climbing.

She caught sight of herself in the mirror. Wild hair, smeared mascara, long arms and legs poking out of her Domo-Kun pajamas. She considered slipping into her clothes, but she didn’t want to fumble in the dark to find them, making noise, alerting the intruder. If there was an intruder. No, it had to be Garth, returning home, unexpectedly for the weekend. Why would anyone else break into a house and turn on a stereo? Who would do that?

Petra shuffled to the door, and plucked the shotgun off the wall, just in case it wasn’t Garth. She slipped a cartridge in the barrel and cocked the gun, just in case it was a Seventies-sounds-loving-lunatic.

She felt awkward shouldering the gun and opening the door. Hector squalled when she stepped on him. So much for not alerting the intruder, she thought as she righted herself and returned the rifle to ready position. Pushing through the door, Petra crept through the dark house until she found the source of the noise.

Your head is singing with the whispering,
So many voices, so many choices,
Which roads to take.

The stereo, an old fashioned tape player, six feet tall, flashing lights and thrumming bass, boomed in the billiards room. Petra stared at it and then shouted above the music, “Garth?” When no one answered, she called, “Who’s there?”
Only the music replied. Magpie curled around her ankles. Her pajama topped slipped off her shoulder as she slowly circled the room, gun raised. Outside, beyond the fence, the mountain lion blinked at her.

Petra turned on the light just as the music ended. The tape sputtered at the end and clicked. She walked to the elaborate sound system, a relic of some distant time, and stared at it. Tiny flashing lights, a series of buttons and switches, it looked as complicated as an airplane cockpit. She didn’t even know how it worked. Maybe she’d walked in her sleep, but turning on the stereo?

The tape clicked out its questions, spinning round and round. Click. Click. Click. She found a switch, flipped it, and the system died. In the sudden quiet, she could her heart’s rapid beats and her accelerated breath.

“Not exactly a lullaby,” she said to Magpie, her voice nearly as loud as her thrumming blood.

“Garth?” she called out again. Maybe he was in the shower, or in the garage, or asleep.

She shouldered the gun, just in case. Every bathroom and bed empty. The garage dark, the cars vacant. She checked the windows and doors of each room. Securely locked. All of them. She flung open closet doors, used her shotgun to poke through the wardrobes. The alarm system in the front hall blinked its tiny red light. No one had broken in, at least, no one who didn’t know their way around the security system.
Petra sat down on the sofa in the living room and laid the gun across her lap. Magpie jumped up beside her, while Hector watched from underneath the grand piano. She absently stroked the cat and felt a smidge less panicked, telling herself she was alone. What should she do? Her cell didn’t get reception in the canyon, so she padded to the phone in the office and picked up the line.

Nothing. She looked at the receiver. The wind could have knocked down the line. Maybe she’d walked in her sleep and turned on the stereo. Since her return from Elizabethan England five months ago, she’d realized that life doesn’t always make sense. Sometimes random, inexplicable, even crazy things happened. And crazy things don’t have to make sense. Maybe the craziness makes sense to someone else, because everyone has a skewed sense of reason, and as mortals, mere humans, we can’t know everything. Sometimes, really truly, only heaven knows. Or hell.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Who Picks You Up When You Fall

Yesterday I went running during my daughter’s voice lesson. Away from my stomping ground, running in unfamiliar territory, headed for Lake Mission Viejo, I stumbled on an uneven bit of sidewalk and landed on my chin. Statistically speaking, I don’t fall often. In my too many years of running to count and share, I’ve only been injured twice and both times were because of sidewalk malfunctions. This is rather remarkable because for a number of years I would run with my dad’s dog off leash in rural Washington and the giant German Short-hair liked to gallop at me full speed whenever the mood to knock me over would strike, a sort of Kato and Inspector Clouseau thing. (Oddly, I felt safer running with him than without him, and a leash was out of the question, in fact, we didn’t even own one.)

For those who don’t know, chins bleed profusely. I had blood soaked clothes, streaks of blood down my legs, red spotted socks. I don’t know anyone in that corner of Mission Viejo, so I slumped towards where I’d parked my car. A woman in red mini-van asked if I needed a ride. I assured her I was fine (bloody, but fine.) She gave me a wad of napkins and then drove slowly behind me for some time, perhaps waiting to see if I’d faint. Moments later, after the red mini-van had disappeared, a woman in a silver mini-van pulled up and offered me a ride. By this time I’d been sufficiently humbled , so Grendal and I climbed into this Samaritan stranger’s car. My rescuer didn’t seem concerned about dog hair, or the mess I dripped onto her car’s upholstery. I made a joke about blood transmitted diseases and she laughed. She didn’t mind going out of her way, never once asked “how far are we going?” and after she dropped me off at Natalie’s voice teacher’s house, she waited until someone answered the door before she drove away.

This experience reminded me of a totally different sort of Samaritan. Years ago I was on a cross country flight with baby Nathan and my seat happened to be among a flock of Asian businessmen (perhaps thirty.) The gentleman beside me, dressed in what appeared to be an extremely expensive suit, tie and white pinpoint oxford shirt, didn’t speak English, which was fine, because neither did baby Nathan. And the two became friends. It takes about 6 hours to fly from New York to California, and Nathan spent the majority of that time on the laps of Asian businessmen. They passed him around like he was a toy for their amusement and pleasure. When we landed, Nathan’s new friends helped with my luggage. We waved goodbye, friends for the moment, knowing that our paths would unlikely cross again.

Fast forward to last Christmas. I was standing in a crowded store, waiting in line, a million things on my mind. The woman behind me began to cry, and not just a few tears. Sobbing, shoulders shaking. I looked in my purse, hoping I could offer her something, a candy, a breath mint… I had nothing. I said nothing. I didn’t know what to say or do.

Since that time I’ve tried to put into practice this thought, “Bumbling love is always better than perfectly executed indifference,” because whether we’re running, flying, falling or waiting, we all need each other.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Lessons Learned

Yesterday my son Jared called from the airport. He was on his way to Taiwan. I remember when he was on his way to preschool. And I cried.

At that time I was pregnant with the twins and I had ample reason to cry. I had four children under the age of twelve. Twenty-seven weeks into my pregnancy my doctor asked me to be on bed rest. This inactivity took a toll on me, my children and my house. From my sofa I was able to look out my window where I would watch the people passing by. Daily, our neighbor would walk her dog and I was jealous. By then just walking across the room to answer the phone left me breathless (I had babies where my lungs belonged.) Just adjusting my pillow caused pain. My children were in school most of the day so I had no one to talk to, my house was only clean when someone else came to clean, I’d been released from all my responsibilities at church or at the school so I was bored, lonely and cranky. Watching that neighbor walk everyday filled me with envy.

Weeks later, my babies arrived, my health and vitality returned. I could clean my house, play with my children, walk my dog, and do all the things that I had missed during those weeks of bed rest. I learned many, many things at that time, but the one I’m sharing is this: we all have challenges. We can never look at someone and assess their choices or situations. Imagine my chagrin when I later learned that neighbor I envied had a serious heart condition. Within a few weeks my energy returned to a level that woman has probably never known, or will know in this life.

We all have lessons we need to learn. I’ve tried to teach them to my children. Baseball, soccer, football, track, swim team, roller hockey (that was scary, almost as scary as driver’s ed, not nearly as scary as the prom.) Piano, flute, trumpet, saxophone, tuba, piccolo. When Adam practiced his violin the dog would howl and the babies would cry. Nathan played an instrument that matched him in size. At Bethany’s swim meets, I felt we all bordered on child abuse when we put our babies in the pool and screamed at them (cheered for them, which sounds just like screaming) until they reached the other side – ten years later Bethany was captain of her high school swim team. The scratchy violin became musical. Nathan grew bigger than his tuba. And then one day I watched grown up Adam pick up young Jared for church. As I watched them walk away together, dressed in their white shirts and ties, it occurred to me that the most important lessons that they’ll ever learn, if they’ll ever learn them well, is to love each other and to love God.

Today Jared arrives in Taiwan and he’ll learn lessons I’ll never know.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

To Cultivate or to Costco?

This year I made a goal to send my novel out into the world twenty times. Twenty times equals, perhaps, twenty rejection letters… At least it always has before. It’s true, I’ve won awards. I’ve been given encouraging words, pats on the head, chucks under the chins. I hate this part of the process. I’m not good at marketing. I’d much, much prefer to be cloistered in my room, weaving stories and creating characters.

But, this novel’s done and what do I do now? Even though I’ve the sequel in my head, a story that I find captivating, the thought of writing for no one, again, has me paralyzed. And so today I’ll go to Costco. Paint a bathroom. Organize a cupboard.

And yet, I read something this morning that spoke to me. Here’s the actual quote. Boyd K. Packer: “Plant your fruit trees. Cultivate them, fertilize them, watch them grow, and enjoy the fruit thereof. If the end comes during the process, so what? Do not deprive yourself of enjoying the fruits of your labors by living in fear of the world’s problems that lie ahead.”

This is what I read: Write your stories. Cultivate your characters, nurture them, watch them grow and enjoy your time with them. If in the end, they’re never published, so what? Do not deprive yourself from enjoying the fruits of your labors by living in fear of the rejection that lies ahead.

Today, I’ll go to Costco and I’ll organize the cupboard, but soon, I’m going to enjoy the story that wants to be told.

Another quote. M. Russell Ballard. “I believe if we think about what it takes to be successful long enough and if we are willing to discipline ourselves to the principle of success, we will experience success. Yes, I am a great believer that “as [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he.” (Prov. 23:7.)

And just one more. George Bernard Shaw said: “People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. People who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.”

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Miracle of Lost Things

I lose things. Sometimes big, important things. Things that should be attached to my body. Once when I was out of the country, headed to a train station, I lost my passport. I prayed a promise that if I could find my passport, I’d be more careful and never lose another thing. I found my passport within minutes.

I still lose things.

Once when my husband had a business trip, complete with a ritzy hotel, I lost my shoes. We had stopped at a park… and my shoes had stayed parked at the edge of the sand. (They were really nice shoes, because I was going to a very nice hotel. I wanted to play in the sand but didn’t want the sand ruin my shoes, so I took them off. Hopefully a nice homeless person with size 7.5 shoes found them.)

Wallets full of money. Cars in mall parking lots. Glasses. Purses. I’ve lost living creatures, friends.

And that’s why today was such a miracle. Once I owned a small device with three components that I haven’t needed or used in 15 years. It would cost almost $500. to replace. Oddly, I remembered where I’d last put it, in the far left corner of my kitchen cupboard, but I didn’t know if it would still be there… I highly doubted it, especially since the kitchen had since been remodeled. New cupboards installed, the old cupboards trashed.

But there it was in the far left corner of the cupboard, all three parts attached. For me, this was as miraculous as the parting of the Red Sea.