Waiting for the Mail

24 May

rusty mailboxMy addiction to the mail began when I was fourteen and developed a mad crush on the teenage drummer of a band who came to play at one of our high school dances. Sadly, I wasn’t there with a date, but as a member of a high school service club I was required to stay and clean up after the dance. The drummer’s name was Bob and he had feathery brown hair and a real mustache. He and the rest of his band mates wore matching peach satin shirts and tight-fitting cream-colored bell bottoms (cue Bee Gees soundtrack) and I willingly gave him my address so he could write to me. Every day for two weeks I eagerly checked our rusty mailbox after school expecting a letter—nothing. I’d pretty much given up all hope when it finally arrived—a square white envelope with my name scrawled across the front in untidy black ink. To this day, I still remember the absolute thrill of holding that letter in my hands.

Thus began my life of waiting for the mail. The college acceptance letter. The Christmas check from the wealthy aunt. The airmail letters from my husband (then boyfriend) who, after our intense three-week affair, left me to go back to his hometown in Mexico.

Although I still love to receive letters in the mail, my new obsession is all about email. Instead of running to the curb to check the mailbox for love letters, I constantly check my phone to see if any literary agents have responded to the queries I’ve sent out about my novel. Most agents tell you that it will take eight to twelve weeks for them to respond. I’ve had some responses—so far it’s been mostly No, thanks, although I have had a couple of requests to read the full manuscript. I’m hopeful someone will believe in my work enough to take me on as a client.

I suspect that this time I’ll be waiting quite a while. Good thing I’ve had lots of practice over the years.

Sorry I’ve got to go now—my phone just dinged!

letters

One of the many letters Rene sent to me from Oaxaca while we were apart.

Who am I?

16 May

 

dna testing kit

For Mother’s Day, my children got me one of those DNA testing kits where I have to spit into a vial and mail it in to a company who will test it and tell me who I am.

Who am I?

It’s all the rage right now to find out who you are by researching your ancestry. Many of my friends are going onto Ancestry.com to find out more about their distant relatives. Families are truly fascinating. I especially love that PBS show Finding Your Roots where celebrities learn about their backgrounds.

I’ve never really felt connected in any way to one specific ethnic group. Being born a white American I’ve always envied those who come from big families and wholeheartedly embrace their culture. My parents migrated to California from Baltimore in the early sixties and I grew up without any extended family nearby. To this day, I’ve not met several of my first cousins. Beyond my immediate family, I’ve never had that sense of belonging to a clan.

I know some of my heritage. My father was half-Italian but didn’t discover this about himself until he was in his forties, after my grandfather—the estranged son of immigrant Italians—died and his secret past was uncovered. Maybe that’s why I married a Latino man with thirteen siblings and a strong family connection—that little bit of Italian in me was crying out for some familia.

I’m intrigued to find out if there are any big surprises in my DNA—besides being part Italian, maybe I have something else going on from my mom’s side—something other than western European—something exotic.

My kids also got my husband a DNA kit. I think he’s a little hesitant to do it—probably because he doesn’t want to know how much Spanish blood is mixed into his Zapotec blood.

I guess it doesn’t really matter what we find out about ourselves. Sometime in the future, there will be so much genetic mixing that we’ll all end up looking pretty much the same.

Which is really what we all are on the inside anyway—the same.

I’ll be sure to let you know who I am when I find out.

great grandparents

My Italian great grandparents, Giuseppi and Rosa Intrieri (a.k.a. Joseph and Rose Winters)

The Pacification

19 Apr

 

nino 2

My son, Nino is graduating from University of California Santa Barbara this coming June. He is an art major who specializes in printmaking. This week he’s having a solo art show at UCSB’s Glass Box Gallery entitled “The Pacification” which explores his relationship with his father. Since many of you won’t be able to attend, I thought I’d share some of his work on my blog.

I’m so proud of Nino for following his passion. He started U.C.S.B. as an Economics/Accounting Major and I knew this was not the path he should have chosen. Luckily, he realized that creating art is what makes him happy and changed his major. In July he’ll be off to live in Oaxaca for sixth months where he will continue to study printmaking.

Here is the explanation behind this show and some examples of his work:

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The artist, Nino Mireles

What Now?

4 Apr

I’ve loved books forever. As a young girl, I was never without something to read. Whether it was a library book (best smell in the world, in my opinion) my brother’s tattered MAD Magazines or the back of a cereal box, I devoured words. Books allowed me to escape into a world of my own choosing; they took me on adventures, they let me be somebody else for a little while when it was too painful to be me.

As a kid, my dream was either to become a concert pianist or a writer. I ended up pursuing music because I was pretty good at it, although I don’t think I was ever competitive enough to make it as a concert artist. Instead, I became a piano teacher. Truthfully, I’m glad I chose that path as it allowed me the chance to raise my four children while I worked from home.

My other dream–the writing dream–never did die out, though. For years I fantasized about writing a novel but never did anything about it–either I was too busy or the fear of failure stopped me before I even wrote that first sentence. That changed when my youngest daughter was diagnosed with cancer. I’ve beaten that story into the ground so I won’t rehash it, but I will say that experience was the turning point for me. The lesson was obvious: time is short so follow your passion.

I got to it. I began blogging. I published an essay in a small magazine and one in an online publication. Nothing big, but it was a start. I blogged some more. Then I sat down and began writing a novel. I blogged some more and got better at my writing.  I joined a writer’s group and shared my stuff. They liked it. Now, ninety thousand words later, I have actually finished a novel.

Now what?

Here comes the hard part. Being new at this trying to get your noel published game, it’s like I’m starting back at square one. Everyone has opinions on what to do: send out queries; find and agent; no, no–don’t do that–self publish instead! I know someone who knows someone who knows someone who can help you.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what happens. I wrote a novel and I loved the process of writing it. I didn’t do it for the money or the glory (well maybe a little.) I did it because there was something inside of me pushing to get the story out. I did it because I couldn’t not do it any longer.

Dear readers, I thank you for hanging in there with me over the past several years, always encouraging me to keep going. I value your support more than I can ever express. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Now if I can only come up with a decent title for the damn thing.novel on desk

 

 

A Morning Walk

11 Mar

I almost didn’t go for a walk this morning. The rain is threatening and I felt I needed to get to work on my writing, but the dogs were looking at me with those sad, pleading eyes. So I caved. This is what I would’ve missed if I’d stayed home.

The world is a beautiful place if you go looking.

A Little Taste of Spring

26 Feb spring 2016 6

I’m wishing for dark cloud and rainstorms, but in the meantime, I’m enjoying the little taste of spring right outside my front door. Thought you might, too.

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Breathe

12 Feb

I recently read the inspiring book—When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi. It’s the story of a highly educated man with degrees in English literature and biology who becomes a renowned neurosurgeon and neuroscientist. A lover of literature and philosophy, Kalanithi writes eloquently about his family, his education, and being diagnosed with stage four lung cancer at age thirty-six.

Here’s a doctor who treats terminally ill patients suddenly facing his own mortality. Before he dies, he’s able to write this poignant book about the true meaning of life.

I guess what really resonated with me about his story was that for years Kalanithi put life on hold while working diligently to become the best possible neurosurgeon—spending hours and hours studying, researching and performing surgeries to leave his mark on the world. Yet in the end what really mattered was not his career, but his wife, baby daughter and extended family.

Why does it take something so devastating to wake us up to what’s really important? When my own daughter was diagnosed with cancer, I thought I had learned my lesson. Yet after almost ten years it’s still a struggle for me to consistently take pleasure in the little things. That darn “if only” pattern of thinking seeps into my subconscious, constantly diluting all the precious joy.

Fortunately, I have found a way to break free from these negative thought patterns—by practicing gratitude. Every day as I go about my daily tasks, I try to consciously think about how very lucky I am.

Today was full of the little things: Sleeping in because of a school holiday; breakfast out with Rene and Isa followed by a glorious walk to our local butterfly preserve. Watching the dogs romp happily through the grass, soft and green from the recent rains. Running into neighbors at the local pizza parlor and joining them for lunch and delightful conversation. A trip to the library. Little things, really—but oh, so very big.

Life is short. Be kind and show gratitude. Nurture relationships.

Revel in the beauty around you. LOVE. I will die someday and so will you.

Breathe deeply before that breath becomes air. It’s that simple.

Let the Storm Rage On

4 Jan

stormUntil today, I have not written a word for over a month. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I have written some words—a line or two on Christmas cards, posts on Facebook, a few sentences here and there on Twitter and Instagram—but nothing substantial or concrete. Nothing significant.

And it’s not like I haven’t had the time to write. I’ve been on vacation for two weeks so I’ve had many opportunities to sit down and work on my novel. Instead, I chose to avoid doing any writing by deciding that I needed to purge my house—to de-clutter and clean every drawer, closet and cupboard that have been spilling over with excess stuff for far too long.

Cleaning out years of accumulated household junk is not an easy job. I was ruthless, hauling boxes and trash bags full of clothing, books and kitchen items to the thrift store. I bought an office shredder and spent hours chopping up reams of documents covered with important account numbers that could ruin my financial life if some identity thief got their hands on them. I donned my yellow rubber gloves, tied a dish cloth around my face and cleaned my oven for the first time in ten years (that Easy-Off Oven Cleaner really works!) I even stocked the laundry room with emergency food supplies and laid sandbags in the backyard in preparation for El Niño. I worked so hard that I had to swallow three Advil every night before bed because I was so sore from lifting, scrubbing, sorting and reaching.

sandbags

Sandbags in preparation for any flooding in our backyard.

When I finally finished every task on my list, my back ached and my hands were chapped and raw. I sat down on the couch and looked at my clean and organized home and waited for that blissful sense of accomplishment to wash over me. Nothing. I felt only exhaustion. I also felt depressed and guilty for not using all that free time to write.

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The view of my clean and organized kitchen/dining room from the living room couch.

I sat there and contemplated why I felt the need to avoid writing in the first place. I realized it all started after I met with an editor friend who, after reading a few chapters of my novel suggested that I needed to make some drastic changes—going as far as changing the narrative form and story line/plot in ways that I found a bit overwhelming—to say the least. It’s difficult to hear those words after putting my heart and soul into this novel for over three years.

But today is a new day and I’ll forge ahead, knowing there is much work to be done. As painful as it will be, I know it’s my time to purge words, sentences and paragraphs. It will hurt, but hopefully when I’m done, I’ll feel that sense of accomplishment I’ve been longing for.

The good thing is that the El Niño storms are lining up in the Pacific. This week I’ll be stuck in the house while the storms rage on outside, giving me absolutely no excuse to avoid writing any longer.

Now if I can just deal with those storms raging in my head and in my heart, I think I’ll be all right.

Happy New Year, dear readers!

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Happy New Year from our family to yours!

Encouraging Words

9 Nov

IMG_4512I’m almost done and I’m scared—terrified is more like it. When I first started writing my novel over three years ago, I didn’t believe I’d even complete a few measly chapters, let alone finish the damn thing. I now realize that I should’ve never told anyone in the first place. Now that I’m on the last chapter, people are going to want to read it.

Oh, god—what have I done?

Thanks to self-publishing, there’s a plethora of good writers out there who are getting their work read. On the other hand, there are also a lot of bad writers who publish as well. I follow a few Twitter sites that promote self-published novels and sometimes I’ll click on a link to see what’s out there. Sometimes I cringe at what I read—much of it is downright awful. I find myself hopping up on my literary pedestal and turning into this judgmental critic who actually takes delight in finding poorly written sentences, bad grammar and trite dialogue.

I’m better than that—right?

Deep down I know that I’m a decent writer and editor. What I don’t know yet is if I can tell a story well enough to connect with a reader and to keep them interested in the characters and the plot. I also know that like most writers, that lurking self-doubt leads me down that road of wanting to do anything but finish what I started.

Lucky for me, I’ve surrounded myself with those who believe in me. My family, my friends, my beloved writing group. The other day out of the blue, a member of my writing group sent me a text. He’s been a dear friend since high school and although we lost touch for close to thirty years, we’ve re-connected over the past three and our friendship has blossomed. At our last group meeting, I expressed to my fellow members that I was feeling a bit blue about finishing my novel and how much work I was facing in the coming months to get it ready. This is what he wrote to me:

Hey there. I just wanted to say that I’m so, so proud of you for what you have accomplished in getting your novel written. It’s a huge and massive undertaking and you’re nearly there and ready for rewrites. The percentage of people who never finish that novel (myself included) is so high as to easily discourage first timers. But you have done it, Jessie. I know there may be a little energy sag now or soon, but never stop appreciating and applauding what you have done here. It’s really quite something and I hope you will give yourself more pats on the back than disparaging remarks. There is more work to do, of course, but it’s clearly a labor of love. Please don’t forget that as you move into this next stage, you have done a wonderful and extraordinary thing. Don’t forget to appreciate yourself with as much love and consideration that you offer others. I’m proud you’re my friend and I’ve had the privilege of watching this creation from the front row!

He didn’t have to take the time to text that to me, but because of his generous spirit, he did. And with those encouraging sentences, his words managed to lift me up out of that mire of self-doubt and fear.

At least for today.

The Narrative Bug

16 Oct

BKS_l_BooksByTheFootLast night my ten-year old daughter caught the narrative bug. This was quite a surprise as my husband—the elementary school teacher—was always having to push her write anything. Isa is lucky (or unlucky and she will undoubtedly assert) to have a built in teacher at home who knows how to teach all the tricks for writing the essays needed to get you through school—or life, for that matter. The tricky part is that when it’s your dad telling you what to do, one tends to resist the help. And one also tends to whine a lot—or outright cry at times.

That was our story until last night when Isa decided to try her hand at narrative writing. Her dad gave her an old laptop and she went into her room for an hour and wrote. Now this kid has always been exposed to literature—in fact, she’s quite the book junkie. Case in point—just yesterday at school, she got to eat In-N-Out with the principal because she earned so many Accelerated Reader points (not sure if rewarding reading excellence with junk food is the right way to go, though.) Isa reads all kinds of stuff—Percy Jackson, Diary of Anne Frank, The Book Thief. She even pretends to read the New Yorker, but I know she’s really only looking at the cartoons. Her idea of a fun afternoon is to head to the library.

A book so good you can't put it down.

Her favorite thing to do.

Before bed last night, she brought the computer upstairs and asked if she could read her first couple of chapters—yes—chapters! Mind you, there were short chapters, but still. Not only that, her first paragraph hooked me right from the start. The voice of the protagonist—an eleven year old girl named Fiona Garcia (is that a great name, or what?) is so likable and funny that I can’t wait to find out what happens to her.

You’re probably thinking—get a grip, Jess—it’s just a story. It doesn’t mean Isa is going to be the next Pulitzer Prize winner in Literature (hey, you never know) or even become a published author. I guess the reason I’m so elated about Isa catching the writing bug is because I wish I had embraced writing more when I was young. To see such light come into her eyes when she talks about her story reminds me of my own childhood passion for creative writing. I remember often being told I was a good writer but as I lacked my own internal self-motivation, I allowed my writing bug to fly away. Now, over forty years later, I’ve managed to recapture that bug and although it’s often difficult, I think I’m managing to tame my it enough so that it won’t fly too far from home.

I’m more than happy to support Isa in all of her writing efforts. I will lovingly make suggestions and eagerly help with any editing requests. What I won’t do is tell her about the crushing self-doubt, fear of rejection or hitting that hard wall of writer’s block. I’ll let her discover these things on her own.

Where the magic happens.

Where the magic happens.

I’ll keep you posted on Fiona Garcia’s exploits. Or maybe Isa will. She just told me this morning that she wants to start a blog.

Oh Lord. Here we go.

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