Letting it Out

9 Apr

photo (28)You may have noticed that I haven’t been posting on my blog as much as I have in the past, which I sincerely hope you don’t think is a good thing because that would be a definite blow to my already fragile ego.

I remember when I first starting blogging, I was so in the writing zone—I would post something every few days—my brain was constantly popping with ideas. After a while the posts went down to once a week, twice a month, and then finally whittling down to once a month if at all. You get the picture.

There are several reasons I’m not posting as often. Primarily, it’s because I’m spending what little time I can carve out of my busy day to work on my novel—which, I’ve just begun to realize, is going to take way longer than I thought. I’m up to twenty eight chapters with no end in sight. I never would have thought that writing a novel would consume me so deeply. It’s a very strange process where I feel like my characters are these horrible, rebellious little people stuck in my brain, fighting with all of their might to come out while gleefully taking me down in the process. I hate them at times but mostly I love them.

I’ve also stopped blogging as much because the truth is that I’ve begun to bore myself by writing about the same topics over and over. God knows that if I’m boring myself, I can only imagine how you feel. I can even hear your voices in my head: Please stop making me cry with sad stories of kids with cancer, or For god’s sake, stop going on and on about how happy you are now that you’ve hit fifty and I swear if you post one more picture of your flower garden I will come over and personally drive my car right over your flower beds. I know, right? Sorry. Even as I write this, I’m realizing that these words sound strangely familiar which means I’ve  probably already written this exact post somewhere in the not too distant past. I’d go back and read through the archives to find it, but I’m way too tired to check.

The writing process is often agonizing. Lately I find myself trapped in these moods where nothing is ever right and all I do is moan and groan and complain and try to blame it on my husband or my kids or on the hormone situation (another topic beaten to death) and then I realize that I’m most likely grumpy because I need to let something out and the way I do that is by writing and sharing it with others. Through the act of writing I feel alive and connected with the outside world and even if it’s just a photo on Instagram, a line or two on Facebook (or Twitter, which I’m only now getting the hang of) or an essay on my blog, I feel more alive after hitting  the “publish” or “share” button. If just writing a post on my blog makes me feel so satisfied, I can only imagine the high of publishing an actual novel, so I’m going to keep at it no matter how long it takes.

Talk about good timing. Yesterday, writer Elizabeth Gilbert posted this on her Facebook page and it totally resonated with me. Here is an excerpt:

I am a writer. If I have a story in me that I’m not able to tell, things will start going wrong all over my life. If I have a story in my head and I tell it, “I’ll get to you in 2015,” that story will start to rebel, start to act out, start to claw at the walls. That’s when the shit gets dark in my world. 

Because having a creative mind is something like owning a Border terrier; it needs a job.  And if you don’t give it a job, it will INVENT a job (which will involve tearing something up.) Which why I have learned over the years that if I am not actively creating something, chances are I am about to start actively destroying something. 

And that ain’t good.

I believe that readers don’t need good writers, although that’s always a plus. The truth is it’s the writers who need good readers. Someone  probably already wrote that somewhere and I should find out who it is and give them their due credit, but I’m way too tired to check.

Life can be crazy at times and I’m often too tired to do a lot of things, but I’m not too tired to tell you something important: I appreciate you for being my good reader. Because without you, I can’t share who I am, and then all kinds of chaos breaks out inside my head.

And that ain’t good.

Another shot of my flower garden. It's just too pretty not to share.

Another shot of my flower garden. It’s just too pretty not to share.

Spring in Santa Barbara

6 Mar

People in other parts of the country say we don’t have seasons in California but I beg to differ. Our seasons just blend into each other with a little less fanfare. I took these photos while out walking this morning and here is my proof that Spring has indeed arrived  in Santa Barbara.

flowers mar 6 mar. 6 no. 5 Mar 6 No. 2 mar 6 no. 3 mar 6 no. 4 mar 6 no. 6 mar 6 no. 7 mar 6 no. 8 mar 6 no. 9 mar 6 no. 10 mar 6 no. 11 mar 6 no. 12

A Happy Ending

18 Feb

RANDOM 122Days go by when I don’t stop to remember that my daughter is a cancer survivor. I even forget to be grateful that Isa is still here with us. Sometimes it feels like the whole cancer experience was a just a tragic movie that our family acted in a very long time ago—a movie filled with fear, angst and sadness but ultimately concluded with a triumphant and happy ending.

I’m to the point now where life is so normal that I actually hear myself complaining about the weather—and this is when it’s eighty degrees outside in February. Isa is nine now, completely cured of her leukemia, growing tall and lithe; busy with singing classes, piano lessons and Girl Scouts. She’s a joyful and funny child—at that lovely pre-adolescent age when everything about life is still fun and exciting—where she wakes up overcome with exuberance as she meets each new day. The beauty of her smile is intoxicating.

This is in stark contrast to me at age fifty-one, when I don’t recognize the old woman with wiry hair and bags under her eyes who stares back at me in the mirror each morning. My body aches as I tightly grip the handrails of the menopausal roller coaster as it throws me into loop after loop of hormone diminishing mood swings, memory loss and weight gain. It would be easy to complain about it all, but I won’t. Because compared to that movie I acted in a few years back, a few aches and pains, forgetfulness, and some grumpiness are really nothing at all.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve been granted the luxury of complaining about insignificant things like menopause because I’m no longer stuck in a hospital room with my daughter tethered to an I.V. line as I watch the chemotherapy wreak havoc on her little body.

There are so many families out there right now who don’t have that luxury—families who are going through what ours went through—some who have little or no hope that their child will survive. I read about them on Facebook and my heart breaks with every story because I know their fear. I know their sadness. I want to promise them it will all get better, and for some it will, but for others there will be no happy ending to their movie.

I’ve realized that when I start to complain about the unimportant things and forget that I had my happy ending, it’s time to bring out that movie and watch it over again—to be reminded that there is still so much to be done to raise money and awareness for cancer research so that eventually, every family with a child diagnosed with cancer will have a happy ending.

My husband, Rene is running his eleventh Marathon in a few weeks, and my daughter, Leah has taken it upon herself to help him raise money for the Pablove Foundation for pediatric cancer research. Here’s the link: http://www.stayclassy.org/fundraise?fcid=257002  Check it out. Maybe your small gesture is just what’s needed to help a child have a happy ending like Isa’s. A little goes a long way.

From this…

Aug 30 07 022

100_0069

isa on horse

IMG_0758 Isa Mireles 4-26-13 - Copy

To this.

Losing Susan

18 Jan

yellow, orange rosesHer favorite colors were orange and yellow. I didn’t know this about her until after she died—when I had to ask her family what color flowers were going to be ordered for her memorial service which I was helping to facilitate. All these years she’s been my friend and I never knew that she loved orange and yellow the best. How did I not know that about her?

For over twenty years, Susan Samuel and I have seen each other at least once a month at our music teacher meetings, recitals and musical events. Although she often talked about her family, I had never once met her two grown sons or said more than a quick “hello” to her husband on the phone. I knew that she was originally from Montana; that she was a micro-biologist before becoming a piano teacher and that she loved music. I knew that she was a brilliant, funny and kind person and that I always felt completely comfortable being around her. I knew that I loved her even though I never once took the time to tell her that. Now I wish that I had told her how much she meant to me.

Two weeks ago, Susan suffered a massive stroke. She was only sixty-seven and in excellent health. She went to her yoga class, came home at noon and was discovered unconscious by her husband later on that afternoon. That night, after emergency brain surgery, she was placed in drug-induced coma until a week later when the difficult decision was made to take her off life support. She died peacefully with her family at her side.

Susan’s memorial was held at the small church where I’m the pianist; Susan also held her piano recitals there, so her husband thought it would be appropriate to honor her in a place where she had a connection. The church was standing room only—people stood against the walls and packed the foyer to listen to the musical offerings and spoken tributes in honor of Susan. It was a meaningful and emotional service.

I had the honor of speaking at Susan’s memorial and this is a part of what I shared:

You may not know this, but we music teachers are a nutty bunch. We’re highly emotional, often insecure and have a habit of taking things personally. We can also get quite hot-headed if things don’t go our way.

It’s not our fault—we can’t help it. After all, we’re artists, and as artists our greatest desire is to bring as much beautiful music into this world as possible. Who has time for organization, protocol and good sense? Who has the skill and ability to handle all those annoying details so that recitals and events run smoothly and easily?

Well, once in a great while, along comes an artist who has all of aforementioned attributes—someone who was passionate about music AND was able to keep a level head and civil tongue, as well as a smile on her face. That artist was Susan Samuel. And to be honest, I don’t know how anything ever got done in our music teachers’ organization before she came along.

When I was nominated as president of our branch, I took Susan aside and told her I didn’t want the job. She looked me right in the eyes and said, “Yes, Jessica—you do want the job,” in that reasonable, no nonsense tone of voice which meant, you’re doing it whether you want to or not. Well, okay then. Then she invited me out to lunch to talk about the job responsibilities, and I thought, “Good. Here’s my chance to pick her brain about how she does everything so effortlessly.”

But that didn’t happen when we went to lunch. In fact, we never even discussed it. Instead, she asked me about my other life—my husband, my children; my gardening and my writing. It was the start of many meaningful conversations over the years where she would tell me about her life—that how before she was a piano teacher, she was a micro-biologist; what Montana was like during the summer; about her two brothers and their struggles; about her father’s antique car collection; about how she loved to play the piano. She especially liked to talk about her husband, Chuck and how proud she was of her two boys, Jon and Dave—and how Jon’s wife, Emilia was a keeper. Oh, yeah—and the grandson on the way. She really liked to talk about that—a lot.

Susan was always our go-to person. At one time or another, most of us in our branch have relied on Susan to give us the correct answer or word the sentence in exactly the right way. I know I’ve never once made an important decision without calling her first to ask her opinion. Last week, when I found out that Susan had suffered a stroke, I wondered when it would be appropriate for me to send out an email to the membership to let them know what happened and my first thought was: I need to call Susan and ask her what I should do.

The fact that none of us call Susan any longer is beyond my comprehension. That we won’t see her smiling face at our monthly meetings and listen to her laugh or watch her roll her eyes over something ridiculous. That she is gone leaves a huge space in our lives and I can say with certainty that our branch will never be the same again.

Susan touched us all with her warmth, her kindness, her graciousness and her humble nature. We will miss her intelligence, her wit, her funny, yet gentle sarcasm, and especially how easy it was to spend time with her. We will miss how she kept us grounded.

Yes, it’s true that we musicians are artists, and we often walk around with our heads in the clouds. Sometimes we ignore the details; sometimes we forget to be diplomatic; and sometimes we fly off the handle. But Susan set the bar for us—she showed us how to do it right; and how to do it well, and for that we will be forever grateful.

We will always love you, Susan. Rest in peace, our dear friend.

Since Susan died I have been walking around with a lump in my throat and a burning sensation behind my eyes. I realize it’s because Susan is the first close friend I’ve lost.  I know there are many profound lessons to learn from her death,  but as I’m in the midst of grieving it’s difficult to figure out what those lessons are right now. Perhaps it’s that I need to learn to live each day as my last, because it may very well be. Or that I should not be afraid to say aloud to those people I care most about the words I should have expressed to Susan: Thank you for being so wonderful. I love you. 

Susan Samuel 1946-2014

Susan Samuel
1946-2014

I’ll leave you with two poems—the first on was written in honor of Susan by a member of our music teachers’ group and the second was read at Susan’s memorial by her close friend. I believe that both capture the essence of Susan’s spirit.

What I knew of you

was warmth,

humble rays of winter sun

and solidity,

like the piano’s ivory keys.

Your music is a hand

now secured

between our shoulder blades,

your steadfast kindness

a melody

humming within our ribs.

–Linda Holland

Let Evening Come  

Let the light of late afternoon

shine through chinks in the barn, moving

up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing

as a woman takes up her needles

and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned

in long grass. Let the stars appear

and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.

Let the wind die down. Let the shed

go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop

in the oats, to air in the lung

let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t

be afraid. God does not leave us

comfortless, so let evening come.

–Jane Kenyon

Change is Good

1 Jan

malibu sunsetChange is always difficult for me. I’m just happier staying stuck in my snug little  rut which is warm and safe and oh, so comfortable. I’ve finally given up making any annual resolutions as it’s impossible for me to live up to all of the unrealistic goals and expectations I set for myself every year.  I rarely go out to celebrate on New Years Eve, preferring to stay home and off the road. And anyway–why should I celebrate something I don’t even want to acknowledge? 

This past New Year’s eve I spent alone with my nine year-old daughter and it was actually quite enjoyable. My husband,  in his usual spontaneous style, decided at the last minute to jump on a plane to Oaxaca and go visit his family. The three older kids all left to go out and celebrate with friends, so after Isa and I played a wild game of gin rummy (I beat her by only five points) we were left alone with our various forms of entertainment; she had her iPad downstairs and I had the complete second season of “Girls” on DVD upstairs.  

“Isa, Honey,” I told her, “please make sure you let me know if you’re coming upstairs while I’m watching my program, okay?”

“Why, mom?” she asked, “Is your show too inappropriate for nine year olds?”

“Way too inappropriate,” I said.

“Worse than ‘Adult Swim’ on Cartoon Network?” she asked.

Way worse,” I said, wondering how in the heck she knew what “Adult Swim” was in the first place.

“Girls” turned out to be so inappropriate that I watched all night long with my thumb on the pause button in case Isa came bounding  up the stairs into our room. But after the first episode I was so hooked that I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen.

I’m such a rotten mother. Instead of interacting with my daughter during the last few hours of 2013, I stayed up until almost two a.m. watching the entire ten episodes  of a very raunchy, yet very well-written television series. I guess I was craving more “girl” time than I realized.

I don’t have to tell you that I was quite tired the morning after, so even though I didn’t make any tangible resolutions this year, I decided that I would not waste the day. I dug in the garden for the first time in months, worked on my novel for a couple of hours, and spent time chatting with the kids (for some reason they called it nagging. What?)

Then I decided to make another change: I decided to create a new look for my blog. Now, in reality, this process is not that difficult. The website I use makes the task quite easy, even for techophobes like me. But because there is so much variety and so many choices,  I spent more than three hours pouring over fonts, colors and designs trying to come up with a theme I liked. It was overwhelming to say the least.

I finally gave up and just went with something that looked pretty. If you don’t like it, please don’t say anything because it will probably  just hurt my feelings. Now if it’s causing you so much distress that you no longer care to read my blog, then by all means, leave me a detailed comment on my blog with any suggestions you may have and I’ll take them under advisement.

Please do keep in mind how much I dislike change, though.

Happy New Year!malibu sunset 3

One of the last sunsets of 2013

One of the last sunsets of 2013

A Joyous Season

24 Dec

mexican starFrom the bottom of my heart I’d like to wish you all a very joyous holiday season and may the coming year be filled with so many blessings that you won’t be able to count them all.

I would also like to express how thankful I am for your readership; for taking the time to leave a comment to let me know you’ve read my latest blog post; for all of your encouragement with my writing, and for just being a part of my life–cyber or otherwise!

With heartfelt gratitude,

Jessica

Here are a few photographs of what is special to me about this time of year…

Paper snowflakes that my daughter, Leah made for the front window

Paper snowflakes that my daughter, Leah made for the front window

Isa as Mary in the church play

Isa as Mary in the church play

Isa looking through the front window
Isa looking through the front window

The lights in our front yard
The lights in our front yard

Peppermint cupcakes!
Peppermint cupcakes!

Hey, Girl, Hey!

11 Dec

beach viewIn most areas of my life I don’t take good very care of myself. I don’t exercise enough; I eat too many sweets and not enough green vegetables; I don’t spend money on new clothes for myself because deep down I believe I don’t deserve nice things (that, coupled with the fact that I hate the way my body looks in a dressing room mirror.) I spend a lot of time primarily taking care of the people I love while neglecting my own needs or wants.

Then I go and do something HUGE for myself: I agree to spend a couple of days in a rented beach house with ten of my best girlfriends whom I’ve known since our days together in junior high school.  Somehow, against all odds, we’ve managed to remain close friends for almost forty years. Every so often we plan a getaway together without husbands or partners, without children or pets. Just us.

The beach house at Mussel Shoals was stunning—right on the water between Santa Barbara and Ventura with the most spectacular views of the ocean imaginable. Everyone brought a ton of food and we all pitched in together, cooking up gourmet meals and then cleaning up afterward. As the wine flowed and the coconut cake was passed around, we talked for hours and hours about our lives; our families, our joys and sorrows.

We laughed—actually, we hooted, we guffawed—we pretty much shrieked like uninhibited second graders running around on the playground during recess. We were vulgar and crass and stayed up until two a.m. talking trash, (Hey, Girl, Hey!) laughing so hard our stomachs hurt the next morning—or maybe it was just the red wine and chocolate.Hey girl hey

After a brunch which included juevos rancheros and mimosas, we took a long walk on the beach and with the cold December wind whipping at our faces we shared our stories with each other. Some of our tales were joyful, filled with newly found love or excitement over a new creative project in the works. Other stories were filled with sorrow and devastation. And then we cried. We cried because we were in a place where we felt safe to open up and reveal our pain to each other without judgment or criticism—a place where love, concern and support for each other decanted faster than the bottles of red wine on the kitchen counter.beach walk

After spending only two days with these women, I became funnier, prettier, and more talented than I was when I first arrived. These women, who’ve only become more beautiful as they age, allowed my capacity for love to expand like a hot air balloon—and not just the love I feel for them, but more importantly, the love I feel for myself. They brought out my best—that special part inside of me that sometimes gets lost in the messiness of life.

As I drove toward home, I felt lighter and more emotionally buoyant than I have in a very long time. I was full up again, satiated with the unconditional love and acceptance that these women offered up so freely to me. As I headed back to my ordinary life, I realized that what I had just experienced over the past two days was indeed extraordinary and I felt blessed.

Off to my left, as the Pacific Ocean unfurled like a sparkling blue comforter laid down just for me, my spirit soared with gratitude.sunset at mussel shoals

Rescuing Myself

7 Nov

photo (26)I’m really good at being my own worst enemy. Having just delved into this whole writing thing a little over two years ago, I’ve realized that although I’m relatively new at honing my craft, I do have something to share with others through my words. But I’ve also found that I’m much too eager to rip off all my clothes and dive into that dark pool of you suck way more often than is good for my literary health.

Case in point: I belong to a writers group which meets twice a month where we share our work in a positive and accepting environment. Recently, the group has gone through some changes (several writers have left and quite a few new writers have joined) and at our last meeting, I was  impressed as well as a bit intimidated by the high quality of writing that was shared. Some of these folks are real writers—novelists, poets, essayists, even professional editors—who have been at this writing thing for years. Not only do they write well, but they read their work with drama and flair. Also, a number of them are originally from the literary Mecca of New York—another reason for this Santa Barbara native to feel like a West Coast country bumpkin.

When it was my turn to read, I shared a chapter of my novel which, in my opinion fell a bit flat. Perhaps because the new members hadn’t heard the previous chapters, they were a little lost as to what the story is about or maybe they just didn’t like it. Whatever the reason, I didn’t get the Woot-Woot response I was hoping for and that fertile seed of doubt about my ability as a writer began to sprout. By the next morning it had grown into a thorny bush of angst and uncertainty.

Now, I understand that self-doubt is a zealous assassin of motivation and inspiration, and I’m the first one to encourage others to keep at it no matter what. My mantras have always been: Find the lesson and Look for the positive, but this time, I couldn’t seem to get my head above that murky water.

Usually, the morning after my writers group, I’m inspired and excited to write more. I had carved out three hours in my schedule that morning to write, but I just couldn’t get myself to sit down at the computer. Instead, I busied myself with mundane tasks around the house that I’d been putting off because I’d been so busy devoting myself to daily writing. As I folded laundry and scrubbed the bathroom, the words you suck burned through my thoughts like the caustic scent of bleach. I was ready to throw in the towel and soon decided that maybe it was a good time to take a break from writing my novel.

Then after two days, something interesting happened. I began to itch to get back to writing. I missed interacting with my characters and finding out what they were going to do. I realized that the process of daily writing was really something I look forward to—it’s something I love doing for myself and my perception of what others thought of my writing was just that—my perception. I live my life, I experience my reality—so what really matters is what I think.

I said to myself, Boy, Lady—you’ve really got a lot of nerve—acting so critical and damning toward yourself—you  would never dream of treating a fellow writer in this way—enough already!

So for today, I’m rescuing myself from that murky pool of despair and I’m choosing to believe that someday, someone out there will enjoy reading what I have to write. And if not, well I’m going to just go ahead and enjoy writing it anyway.

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)

1 Nov

Today is the first day of November: All Saints Day or Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). It’s the perfect opportunity to remember those who have left us and reflect upon how much they meant to us.  Just by thinking of them today, we can keep their memories alive in our minds and in our hearts.

Our Dia de los Muertos  Altar 2013

Our Dia de los Muertos Altar 2013

Colorful skulls and pan de muerto

Colorful skulls and pan de muerto

Flor de Muerto (Marigolds)

Flor de Muerto (Marigolds)

Making fun of death

Making fun of death

Cancer took them too soon...Rosie, Jessi, Jeffrey, T.T. and Lexi. R.I.P little ones

Cancer took them too soon…Rosie, Jessi, Jeffrey, T.T. and Lexi. R.I.P little ones

Resting in eternal matrimony; Hermelinda Chimil  and Elias Mireles

Resting in eternal matrimony; Hermelinda Chimil and Elias Mireles

Precious Gillian Winters

Precious Gillian Winters

Skeletons and more skeletons...

Skeletons and more skeletons…

Grandpa Joe

Grandpa Joe

Remembering Grandpa

20 Oct

muertos 4The other day, my eight year-old daughter, Isa said something that stuck with me: “Mommy,” she said, “Isn’t it sad that I’m not used to saying the word Grandpa?”

It’s very sad, indeed. Isa has never had a grandfather, as René’s father and my father both died before she was born. My father has been gone for almost thirty years now and it seems as if I think of him more often as I grow older myself. It’s become a regular occurrence that his memory comes to me when I’m reading or writing and I don’t know the meaning of a particular word. I think to myself, Oh, if only Dad were here—I could ask him—because when I was a young girl, every single time I needed to know what a word meant, he always knew.

My dad still shows up in my dreams sometimes. I’m the first to admit that because of his alcoholism, I’ve carried the weight of a heavy resentment toward him for many years. But now in my dreams, I’m no longer the victimized and martyred little girl as I used to be. I’m just a daughter who’s over the moon to see her daddy again. And as if I’m still half his height, I stretch my arms up high to hug him, the soft cotton material of his Brooks Brothers button up shirt brushing against my skin. I bury my face into his neck, the scent of nicotine and Old Spice coming off of him like a stale and comforting perfume. I always ask him the same question: “Where have you been all this time?”

Lately, I think of my dad every time I walk through the living room. It’s that time of year again when we set up our altar for Dia de los Muertos—Day of the Dead, and his photograph is the focal point of our altar. He’s surrounded by skulls, candles, marigolds, pan de muerto, and most importantly, by the smiling faces of other relatives and friends who have also left this earth.

muertos 1

I think he would be surprised by the number of faces placed next to his: his two younger brothers; his granddaughter, Gillian; the many faces of Isa’s young friends who’ve all died from cancer. He might be a little bit pleased that on this altar he’s still the patriarch—the grandpa watching over them all—a part of something that we who are still here on this earth have yet to understand.

It feels good to remember that in more ways than not, my dad was a decent man. He was flawed, as I am, but he did the best he knew how to do, just as I’m doing the best I know how to do. And despite his imperfections as a father, he must have done a few things right along the way.

After all, I turned out pretty good.

muertos 3

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