Change is Good

22 Aug

green leaves

As some of you may know, I live in the house I grew up in. It’s not easy buying a home in the Santa Barbara area on two teachers’ salaries, so my husband and I were indeed fortunate to be able to purchase my childhood home from my mother (who came along with the deal.)

Last summer, after five years of a long California drought the liquidambar tree that grew in our parkway began looking a bit sad and spindly. One Sunday afternoon in July, a huge branch suddenly broke off and landed on the hood of my husband’s car. A couple of weeks later, after having insisted that the tree had been properly maintained, therefore denying our damage claim, the city arborist came out and decided the tree was pretty much dead. Next thing I knew, a crew of men in orange hats showed up and within a span of several hours cut it down, chipped it up and left me with a bare strip of dirt in front of my house.

I ranted and raved and then I cried. After spending my own childhood with that beautiful tree and then raising my four kids under its boughs, I really thought life would never be the same again.

Time passed, and life did indeed go on without the tree. Fall arrived and that there were no dead leaves or spiny seed pods to clean up was definitely a benefit. The rain came and without the tree roots, the soil became fertile again. I was immediately drawn to the potential of all that dirt. I got down on my hands and knees and planted.

Life is full of change and trade offs. Sure, the birds build their nests in the neighbors trees and I have a little less shade in my life, but now I get to watch a daily performance of bees and butterflies as they flit in and around my newest flower bed. Not to mention the perfectly unobstructed view of the mountains.

Change is good.

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Different Cups of Coffee

10 Aug

 

c2a98633-8524-45d7-9844-0aedd3daff88Today I found myself falling back in love with my husband. This is no small feat considering we’ve been together since 1985, married over thirty years with four children, during which time I’ve learned many things, one being that I’m absolutely capable of murder.

As most married couples, we have our certain routines. Please don’t tell anyone, but we eat breakfast at McDonald’s. Often. And there is an exact procedure that we follow with our breakfast ritual: Before leaving the house, I order my Venti Decaf Skinny Mocha from Starbucks using the app on my phone so I don’t have to wait in line (one of the greatest inventions ever created.) Then I drop Rene off at McDonald’s and head over to Anna’s Bakery where I order him a sesame bagel (double toasted), a muffin for me (pumpkin or blueberry oatmeal) and a crème-filled chocolate donut for Isa if she’s with us. We then meet up at McDonald’s where Rene has ordered scrambled eggs and his beloved McDonald’s coffee. We grab a window table and after greeting the locals, we eat our breakfast and talk.

Most times we talk about our work, our students—our family and friends. We often run into people we know (it’s astounding how many people my husband knows in our community) and have a quick chat with them. Sometimes, during our conversations we get angry with each other, usually when the topic is our children; he wants to push them and I want to defend them. Mostly, we talk and laugh. Throughout the years we’ve had some deep, philosophical discussions under the glare of those fluorescent lights.

Today was really no different than usual, except that as René spoke about his latest trip back home to Oaxaca, and how much he appreciates his life there and well as the life we’ve created together here, I realized how deep my love is for my husband. I’m so very lucky to be married to a man who is so different than I—in language, culture and background. Over the years, he’s exposed me to a world I never would have known or appreciated if I had married someone like me. And I guess I’ve done the same for him. The reality is that although we sip our coffee from two different cups, we’re drinking the same thing.

The other night, René pulled out some love letters I’d written to him when he’d gone back to Oaxaca after we first began dating in 1985. The words written by that young girl were so full of love and promise. At twenty-three, she didn’t know if he was coming back to her, but it didn’t matter. She loved him and she wasn’t afraid to tell him.

She must’ve been a pretty persuasive writer because he ended up coming back. And it’s been a pretty good life so far. We’ll see how it goes over the next thirty years.

You can find us having coffee at McDonald’s.

Puzzle

31 Jul

img_1605It wasn’t that long ago that I looked forward to my writing time—a few free hours here and there would make my stomach tingle with eager anticipation. I’d grab my coffee, open my computer and begin piecing together my puzzle of words, sentences and paragraphs. After several years, I watched my jigsaw come together with pages, chapters and finally, a completed novel.

I know I should feel a sense of accomplishment that after many hours of work, I took an idea and turned it into a story with a beginning, middle and end—a story that many people have told me they’ve loved reading.

And yet the truth is, it’s not right yet.

After another round of queries, another agent was intrigued and asked for the full manuscript. He told me he’d get back to me within three days—which he did, but not with the positive news I’d hoped for.

It was another pass. But instead of the standard I’m sorry this isn’t the right fit for me at this time, blah, blah, blah, this guy actually called me on the phone and spoke to me for twenty minutes about what I needed to do to make the narrative execution work. He really liked my voice, but felt I needed to flesh out the main character more so that the reader could better understand her motivation. He said he’d be happy to take another look at after some revision.

More revision? Oh, Lord.

I guess that in my eagerness to finish the puzzle, I neglected to take the time to see if all the pieces were in the correct position. From a distance, it looked fine, but upon closer inspection, it became obvious some of the pieces were not aligned.

When the truth hits you right in the face, it hurts. Especially when you realize that deep down, you knew it all along.

Which is why I haven’t been writing lately. I’ve avoided my computer altogether (except when I waste time on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram—or spend an inordinate amount of time following the distracting antics of the crazy man in the White House.) Right now I’ll do anything to avoid facing the nitty gritty work that I know I must do in order to make my novel really good.

But it is imperative that I remember I’m not defined by whether or not I get this novel published. Instead, I’m defined by my tenacity in sticking with this process no matter how much rejection and failure I’ve faced. I have a stubborn streak and it will do me justice in the end.

There. I just wrote over 400 words. I guess I’m already back to work. I’ll report back and let you know how it turns out.

Thanks for listening.

No Place I’d Rather Be

17 Jun

I normally teach Saturday mornings, but with several students out of town on vacation, I miraculously had the morning off. Not only that, I had a very generous gift card for a local nursery that one of my graduating seniors gave me as a goodbye gift. Talk about bliss! Starbucks in hand, I browsed through the colorful flower displays and went completely nuts, choosing whatever I wanted with no residual guilt about spending too much money. My trunk stuffed with color, I headed home to plant.img_1413

I started with the back patio where the zinnias were on their last legs. I pulled everything out of the pots and started over. Here’s the final result. Can you tell I’m into pink and purple these days?

Next, I tackled the front porch, where the pots have been empty for months. I think it turned out really well.

Now I’m tired. I think I’ll sit on the front porch chair and gaze out over my kingdom.

There’s no place I’d rather be than the garden. Life is good.

Ten Junes

30 May

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June is almost here and I’ve begun to feel it—that sense of giddy anticipation for the coming summer. All the signs are here—the misty fog banks that hug the coast, the scent of jasmine in the air when I open the front door; the ruffled towers of purple delphinium that sway in the offshore breezes that slip in off the Pacific.

Since I was a girl I’ve associated June with happy affairs—a long vacation from school, the prospect of lazy days spent at the beach, a new part time job—the thrill of a budding summer romance. June was always filled with a sense of endless possibility and hope.

Then in 2007, June turned on me. It became the month my daughter, Isa was diagnosed with leukemia.

Exactly ten years have passed since Isa’s diagnosis of cancer, when the perfect month of June lost its allure and became a time associated with doctors, nurses and hospitals; with antibiotic cocktails, blood transfusions and chemotherapy. When June became a time saturated with anxiety as my two year-old developed an angry rash all over her body and suddenly stopped eating because her mouth was filled with painful sores. June was raging fevers, sweat-soaked hospital sheets and sleepless nights. June was spending our twentieth wedding anniversary in an isolated hospital room watching our daughter suffer. June was thinking Isa could die.

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Isa  in the hospital on her third birthday.

But June turned out to be other things, as well. It was the wisdom of the doctors and the compassion of the nurses who held our hands, loved our daughter and reassured us that Isa would be all right. It was when our family, friends and community gave us their unconditional support through selfless acts of kindness—big and small. June was when we received that phone call from the doctor telling us that Isa had responded rapidly to the chemotherapy and was in remission.

Ten years.

In a few weeks, Isa will graduate from sixth grade. Like the jasmine that grows outside my front door, Isa has blossomed into a beautiful young girl—outgoing, smart, funny and most importantly, kind. Today she is considered cured and shows no residual effects from the chemotherapy.

As I stand on my front porch and look out at my garden, I realize the anxiety I carried for so long is gone. I am no longer afraid. Isa is still here with us and for this I am forever grateful. As summer stretches out before me, I feel only wonder for the possibility of what is to come.

June has come back to me.

 

Isa in a commercial for Santa Barbara Cottage Children’s Hospital

 

Friday Blooms

26 May

Happy Friday! Here’s a little color to brighten your day. Hope you all have a wonderful Memorial Day weekend!img_1284img_1274img_1276img_1281img_1280img_1279img_1277

Rejection

2 May

Voting and protest concept

I had no idea how hard this was going to be. Don’t get me wrong—I knew there would be rejection. I just didn’t realize how much rejection.

It’s been a year since I began searching to find representation for my novel, Lost in Oaxaca. The very first week I began the process of querying agents, I got a response from a well-known literary house in New York City. The woman who owned the agency emailed me back within a day. “I like this,” she wrote after reading the first chapter. “Send me the full manuscript as soon as possible.”

Well, that was easy, I gloated, expecting her to call me within a few weeks with an offer of representation. LOL. Or TTJTRWJ which means Time to join the real world, Jess. Eight months later, she finally emailed me back.

Dear Jessica,

I have had this for so long that it’s time for me to face up to the reality, which is that I like this but I don’t love it, and that’s why I keep putting it down and picking it up again.

I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I can’t represent something for which I have only moderate enthusiasm, and that is not something you should want either.

I feel it’s a little too romancey for my taste. The writing is good, but not spectacular. It’s a near miss, but one that I have to take seriously.

Good luck with this. Someone else might be interested, but I have concluded that I am not the right person for this.

Good, but not spectacular. A near miss. Ouch. Okay, so she didn’t love it. We all have different tastes. That’s to be expected. Someone else out there is bound to love it.

I keep a yellow legal notebook pad where I write down whom I’ve queried and the date I sent the email. When I receive a rejection, I write a big “NO” across the name. I have written “NO” forty-eight times. Really. Forty-eight times. I just counted.

I can tell that most of the rejections are form letters. I get it—sincerely, I do. Every day, these people are inundated with thousands of emails from hopeful authors like me—how can they possibly take time to respond with a personal note?

This is not to say I haven’t had some positive response. In the course of one year, I’ve had five agents request the full manuscript. After reading my novel they all graciously declined, but at least they asked to read it. I guess that’s something. Recently, I received the one and only rejection email where the agent (from another well-known New York literary agency) actually took the time to offer suggestions.

Dear Jessica,

Thank you for the opportunity to read Lost in Oaxaca. I enjoyed the detailed portraits of musical subcultures, family life, and travel experiences, and found your imagery quite engaging. I also appreciated the story’s diverse cast of characters and emphasis on inter-cultural engagement. However, this aspect of the story often felt forced and didactic. Characters like Camille’s mother felt too much like caricatures of xenophobia to be convincing, and Camille was often frustratingly naïve, in spite of her intelligence. In order to challenge readers, the story’s political aspects must be more challenging and complex. This manuscript was well-crafted, and I wish you the best of luck with it in the future.

Now, that’s concrete advice I can use. I took her suggestions to heart and have already re-worked parts of my manuscript. What I really appreciate is that she actually took the time to offer her expertise to someone she doesn’t know. That’s true professional courtesy. I think that when I do publish this damn book, I’m going to acknowledge this particular agent for being so thoughtful.

I have many good qualities but my best one is patience. Therefore, I AM NOT GIVING UP. I have sent out eighty-six queries and more than half have said NO. Some never responded. But I AM NOT GIVING UP. Some agent out there is bound to read my query and be intrigued enough to ask for the manuscript. Hopefully, that person will fall in love with my characters just as I have—and then I’ll get the phone call I’ve been waiting for.

And the rest will be herstory.

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The Miracle of Rain

11 Apr

Like magic, the rains came back this year. It’s been a very long drought, and although we’re not yet where we need to be in Santa Barbara, we’re definitely in better shape now than we have been for the past five parched years. The hills are green and flowers are blooming everywhere!

My garden is so happy!

Staying Put

28 Mar

When one lives in paradise, it’s nearly impossible to find vacation spots that compare to home. Our solution? A staycation. We explore our own community and pretend we’ve never seen it before. Yesterday, we took a drive up in the Santa Ynez mountains, had lunch downtown and took in a late afternoon movie (Get Out–a fantastic film.) This morning was breakfast at Anna’s Bakery and a walk to our local nature preserve. I am so grateful to live in Goleta the Goodland.

Here’s a slideshow of our hike this morning. Enjoy!

Now I’m off to work in the garden.

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Tiny Beautiful Things

1 Mar

I recently read the most wonderful book: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, the author of the best selling memoir, Wild. This lovely little book is a compilation of letters sent to the author while she worked writing an advice column for the Rumpus called Dear Sugar. My childhood friend Michele (one of my fellow creative soul sisters) recommended it to me as she understands my constant angst about trying to find happiness through creative expression.

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I needed this book right now. I haven’t felt like myself lately. Each morning when I turn on the television I want to either scream or cry at what’s happening in our country. I need to start my next novel and every time I sit down at the computer–I’ve got nothing. I stare blankly at the screen until I finally give up and log into Facebook where the political posts made me even more depressed. Just before falling asleep in bed each night, my brain manifests all kinds of wonderful and exciting writing ideas, then when I wake up the next morning, I can’t remember a single one.

The best thing about Tiny Beautiful Things is that we learn something that we already know: life is hard sometimes. We are all sad and raw and completely lost at some point in our lives. the trick is to understand that with each experience there’s a lesson to be learned. We don’t always pay attention, but it’s there.

I’m not sure what my lesson is lately. Certainly, I need to feel more gratitude for what I have. And I have so much. So I will pay attention to all the tiny beautiful things that are right in front of me.