Writing with Jen

Go ahead and Google ‘writing retreats’. (No, seriously–do it.) Over thirteen million hits. How was I ever going to figure out which retreat fit my writing needs? Which retreat wasn’t going to break the bank? Which one wasn’t too prescriptive? Last July my roomie at the Boston AWA facilitator training suggested I try one of Jen Louden’s Taos Writer’s Retreat. She had attended at a time of great change in her life and had nothing but positive things to say about her time writing with Jen in Taos. How serendipitous! I was also going through a great time of change in my life … so I trusted Kathy’s suggestion, and hit the “apply now” button before I could change my mind.

Because here’s the deal. I’m a fairly reserved person. I tend to warm up slowly, especially in a group. Butterflies and all that … at least initially. So why the heck did I sign up for a retreat that was comprised of ‘Small Group Check-in’ and ‘Evening Council’ according to the sample schedule online? (Honestly, by June I was a little panicked.) The truth is, I might be reserved, but that doesn’t mean I’m a loner, nor do I dislike sharing once I settle in. And another truth is that I needed some event to mark my retreating from my professional life (I retired from 25 years of teaching high school in May) so that I could move forward into another life. It was get-out-of-my-comfort-zone time*.

So off to Taos I flew for what I called my Transition Trip. And what a beautiful transition it was!

Everyone probably has a friend like Jen Louden. She’s that one who is funny and doesn’t have a whole lot of inhibitions. She’s the one who is genuine and warm and at times a little crazy. The one who is hard-working and smart. She’s that friend who is your biggest cheerleader. She’s the one who has no problem having a heart-to-heart, but at the same time will respect your privacy.

Our retreat days were full–and as productive as each participant wanted them to be, beginning with writing prompts in the morning that gentled us into two or more hours of time to work on our projects. After lunch there was a class on a specific topic: plot, structure, dialog. Yoga closed our work day–teacher Genevieve of Shree Yoga in Taos shared a lovely Anusara practice that was accessible to most levels of experience. Evening Council was a time of book discussion, guided sharing (*gasp*) and reflection, along with a loving kindness meditation.

So what about the women, my fellow retreaters?

They are remarkable. Accomplished and driven. Open-hearted. Supportive. Progressive. There was no drama, no exclusion. Women as women are meant to be. Our professional talents ranged widely: we were a social worker, therapist, university instructor, energy worker, realtor, visual artist. But what connected us all was our drive to write. Each retreat Jen hosts a guest teacher, and this week’s was journalist and writing teacher Lisa Jones, author of Broken(Which, of course, I have ordered!) Lisa’s class was rigorous–and gave me new insight into plot development.

This is the text I sent my group, explaining my unexpected departure. They held my spot. Photo: Jenny Grill

The retreat was held at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, which could be a post in itself. Suffice it to say, the setting was beautiful–and, in my mind at least, teeming with Story Sprites. And the food. Oh, my heart, the food …

My retreat didn’t end as fortuitously as it began. I received a midnight text that my flight out the next day had been cancelled and I needed to find another one–at 1 AM. The best connection was one that left Santa Fe at 6:30 that morning (maybe you see where this is going) and it was easily a 90 minute drive to the airport. In the dark. On roads I’d only traveled once before. So my time at the Taos Writing Retreat ended with me sneaking out as quietly as I could at 3 AM and missing our closing circle. I texted Jen. I texted my small group. And the picture they posted on Facebook sums up the spirit of the week beautifully.

I’ll be back.

Mind you, I didn’t totally abandon my comfort zone. Something about morning dance and all at 7 AM. Just. couldn’t. do. it. At least not this time!

An enchanted place

On the O’Keefe tour at Ghost Ranch–many of her painting sites remain as she saw them.

When life looked desolate to me a few years ago, I threw out all my writing. Emptied the file folders onto a pile on the floor … dumped in with 1999 tax forms, a window sticker from a car I no longer drove and Explanation of Benefit booklets for insurance that had expired. “That’s over and done with,” said I, “A waste of time and a road going nowhere. Life isn’t all fairy dust and light, so get over it.” But even as I stuffed those pages into the trash, I thought to myself, At least I birthed them–the stories made it out into the Universe, and while I might not have copies any longer, I brought them alive for a short time

When I started writing again (I guess life wasn’t so dismal after all) I had some momentary twinges of regret at tossing out my work, but, surprisingly, I do have a sense that those stories are still alive, swirling in the ether around me–Story Sprites that have a life and a mind of their own.

Last week I went to the land where many Story Sprites live.

New Mexico has long been home to the amazing art of its native peoples. And in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Anglo artists and writers began throwing their words and images into the cauldron that is this land, creating a delicious brew of magic art. Writing in New Mexico–with its elevated plateaus,

This was the view as I walked out of my room.
Part hallway, part gallery, outside windows opened wide on this hallway and let in extraordinary breezes every afternoon.

mesas, sandstone cliffs, sweeping sky and pulsing silence–is extraordinary. The women who came here at the beginning of the last century, especially, strode in bravely and fiercely, leaving behind the constraints they’d grown up with when they arrived–and Willa and Georgia and Mabel are only the famous ones. Their’s was a time bound even more to you musts and you musn’ts and yet they wrote into this space and carved out lives that fit them just so.

Mabel Dodge Luhan and her husband Tony built a house that was a draw for creatives, and the space they held for those artists and thinkers was a kind of extension of the beauty of the landscape. My retreat to New Mexico this month has given me a glimpse of the sacred space of that sky and land and it has beckoned me on to the Next Chapter. I’ve thought a lot about Willa and Georgia and Mabel. (And, you can be sure I’ve bought some books!) and how they ever had the courage to defy tradition and demand life on their own terms

I spent six. whole. days. in Tony’s room–the room Tony Luhan described to Mabel as he scratched the house’s plan in the dirt on her property nearly one hundred years ago. I’m writing this on the sleeping porch which he envisioned. This is a permission I’ve not ever given myself–take a solid block of time to write and the retreat is a kind of blessing I’m allowing myself. I’m retreating from something–a professional life in teaching–and, I hope, drawing back in order to move forward–to a writing life.

The labyrinth at Ghost Ranch

And truly what better place than here on the plateaus, sky wide and open above me, the adobe walls of Mabel’s home holding so many stories. Breathing in the stories of Cather and Lawrence and Huxley that still must spin around this space, blowing in the windows with the wind that stirs the cottonwoods so furiously each afternoon.

Next up: A Jen Louden retreat in Taos–my Transition Trip into retirement. (Go me!)

Radio Girls: review

Radio Girls
Sarah-Jane Stratford
New American Library (2016)

radio girls

Every now and then when I was a teacher, I’d get a box of books donated to my classroom library. Maybe from a parent or another teacher or a community member. I have to admit I found this title in one such delivery, and I’m glad I brought it home. The novel Radio Girls gave me a peek into a world I knew nothing about: the early days of the BBC in 1928 and the pioneering women who worked there. While the story’s focus is the fictional Maisie Musgrave and her rather Mark the Match Boy rise in the world, I found the inner workings of the newly established British Broadcasting Corporation a more compelling story and the figure of Hilda Matheson (who was the dynamic head of Talks at the BBC) fascinating.

hilda matheson
image@nationalportraitgallery (London)

The first general manager of the BBC, John Reith, couldn’t decide whether to keep the left-leaning, open-minded Matheson on a short leash–or a long one. While he basked in the accolades the BBC received for Matheson’s programming decisions, he feared she was a communist too liberal and his conservative nature was offended by her affair with Vita Sackville-West. The relationship between Reith and Matheson was often a contentious one. Matheson, however, used her position as the Director of Talks to bring the public information conveyed in a more informal, conversational manner, and she featured the first on-air political debate, popular authors from Virginia Woolfe to H.G. Wells, and newly enfranchised women voters. Matheson’s position opened the way to hiring other single women in positions other than secretary. (The BBC under Reith maintained a policy of hiring women only if they were not married.) Add to her trailblazing at the BBC the fact that Hilda Matheson worked as an M15 operative during the Great War and the fact that she served as secretary to Britain’s first female parliamentarian Lady Nancy Astor and you’ve got quite an incredible individual.

In researching her life I discovered another book, a privately published (and so difficult to find) biography titled Stoker: The Life of Hilda Matheson. I think it would be well-worth the read. In any case, if you’d like to read about a pivotal time in the history of the BBC and English women, I don’t think Radio Girls will disappoint.

How is it I’d never heard of this incredible woman before now?

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell: review

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell
Nadia Hashimi
William Morrow

Be honest.

photo credit@National Geographic

How much do you really know about Afghanistan? That it’s the site of one of the United States’ longest foreign wars. That it was the seat of Osama bin Laden and el Qaeda. Maybe you read The Kite Runner, so you have at least a better-than-average understanding of what life in Afghanistan might be like. And everyone remembers the Girl With the Green Eyes on the cover of National Geographic in 1984. But if you’re like me, I’m guessing that’s the extent of it, right?

Nadia Hashimi’s novel The Pearl That Broke Its Shell tells the story of Rahima, one of four sisters in a poor family at the turn of the 21st century. Her Pader-jan is off fighting with the war lord; the Taliban rules the streets. And without a brother to escort the girls to school and the marketplace, they are virtually prisoners in their own home. (What makes matters even worse is that Pader-jan is an opium addict who is–let’s just say–less than helpful when he is home.) Rahima’s Mader-jan suggests that the nine-year-old become bacha posh, a custom in which a young girl takes the role of a male child. After all, Rahima’s great-great-grandmother was a bacha posh, too, so there is family history to consider. So the girl’s hair is cut short. She wears pants. Barters with the shopkeepers. But even better? As Rahim, she plays soccer, walks freely down the street, looks neighbors in the eye, and gets out of any woman’s work around the house. A stranger on the street would think Rahima really was a boy.

Pearl that broke its shellHashimi alternates between Rahim’s story and Shekiba, her great-great grandmother–and reveals the lives of ordinary (and extraordinary) women in Afghanistan over one hundred years. We experience life in a family compound with farmers who barely eke out a living. We shrink at the blows overbearing mothers-in-law rain on young wives. We live in a war lord’s harem. We feel what it’s like to be number three wife and backhanded by an angry husband for some insignificant infraction.

Those stories laid a groundwork for understanding modern day Afghanistan, at least through the eyes of a the women. So readers learn how powerful husbands enter a wife’s name in the running for a seat Parliament because western powers had dictated that a certain number of ministers be women. How those female ministers had ‘minders’ who signaled to them how to vote. How even in 2007 women were not to watch television or use a computer. And how bearing children is still a woman’s greatest worth.

In every society, no matter how repressive, there are always women who slip through the gender-role cracks. In The Pearl that character is Khala Shaima , Rahima’s elderly spinster aunt who is old enough (and she herself would probably say ugly enough) to say anything to anyone and go where she wants when she wants to. Khala Shaima is always there to fight for Rahima and push her to think beyond the confines of her life–to some day find a way to a better life.

But exactly how that pearl breaks its shell is yours to discover.

So many books, so little time …

That’s actually not entirely true–while I do have many books on my TBR pile, I also have a lot of time now that I’m retired! But instead of reading and blogging in an orderly manner–posts planned and scheduled as good bloggers are wont to do–I launched myself into a frenzy of reading on June first. It must be the giddy freedom I feel staying up until (*gasp*) midnight with a book in hand. Or sitting on the deck with a cold drink in the middle of the afternoon, for goodness sake. To play a little catch up, this post is a two-fer.

The Figgs
Ali Bryan
Freehand Books

the figgsThis is a family who put the fun in dysfunctional. (And they’re Canadian! I thought those Canadians had their shi stuff together compared to Americans, that they operated on a higher plane–but apparently not.) June and Randy Figg live with their three twenty-something children under one roof. Tom, Derek, and Vanessa have finished at university. Or not. They are employed. Or not. And their parents are out of their minds with frustration. Or not. Because if any parents are just asking to have their adult children boomerang, it’s the Figgs. They cook the “kids” breakfast, lunch, and dinner on demand. Do their laundry. Pick up after them. And drive them to and from their (mostly) part time jobs. All the while complaining and lecturing the “kids”. (Can you say ‘enablers’?!)

And then the poop really hits the fan. Derek finds out a young woman he hooked up with is in labor. With his baby. It’s fair to say that chaos ensues and the Figg’s lives are turned inside out when the baby’s mother decides that she doesn’t want to raise baby Jaxx and Derek brings the newborn home. To mom and dad’s, that is.

Author Ali Bryan is a master at capturing the put-upon whining of millennials and their martyr parents and I found myself hooting out loud at times at the banter. But underneath the humor, Bryan asks us to think about the life-changing ramifications of adoption. Not too far into the novel, the reader discovers that June was adopted as a child. A little farther in, we learn that Randy has been keeping a painful secret–nearly thirty years ago, his high school girlfriend had given his baby up for adoption. Randy is determined to find his son, but June never had any interest in looking for her parents.

Until the arrival of little Jaxx.

It’s fresh. It’s funny. It’s a peek into a dysfunctional family who somehow make it work. Read The Figgs this summer.

Remind Me Again What Happened
Joanna Luloff
Algonquin Books

Claire wakes up in the hospital and she has no idea why she is there. She can remember very little of the fever that caused the seizures from remind me again what happenedwhich she still suffers and her husband Charlie is a stranger. She can’t even remember their first kiss. Frightened and very sick, Claire asks Charlie to call Rachel, her best friend–their best friend, really–because she senses she “needs an ally”. Charlie seems always angry with her. He is at once controlling and distant.

But like many who suffer brain trauma, Claire’s distant memory is fairly intact. She can describe the bedspread in her room when she was eight. She remembers the snack her mother made her each afternoon. And she can tell the story of her grandparents courtship when she searches through a box of old photos. The gaps in Claire’s memory frustrate them all.

We learn early on that Claire and Charlie had lived apart for a few years before her illness. And while Claire doesn’t remember any of this, she does have flashes of memory: Michael; Pondicherry, India; Turkey. What do those fragmented memories mean, if anything? Her apartment in New York was packed up and boxes are waiting for her to sort through: Work. Grad school. Childhood. Boxes that might answer Claire’s questions.

And although the story of Claire’s memory loss does capture the reader, it is the questions author Joanna Luloff asks about memory that are most compelling. The story is told alternating narrators, so we hear the same story told by three different people. Except the stories aren’t the same at all–so what is reality? How can we determine if what we remember is accurate or not? How can three people remember the same incident so very differently?

If like your novels tied up with a neat bow at the end, this book probably isn’t for you. But if you want to ponder some Deep Thoughts and wonder if you really remember what caused the end of a love affair or the loss of a dear friend, I’d give it a go.