Marjorie Rawlings: Warm or White Christmas?

Florida Humanities Council posted a wonderful story about Marjorie Rawlings learning to love Florida at Christmastime. It took some time for the writer to adjust to warm air and green plants at Christmas but once she did, she was in it lock, stock, and barrel. Great article.

Paralleling Rawlings, but humbly drawing no comparison in talent, I am spending Christmas in Tucson to promote my new novel, Threshold, in very warm BUT DRY weather. Here we might be sipping margarita’s with lots of lime.

Below are photos I took at Rawlings’ Cross Creek home, now a Florida State Park, and great place to visit on your way down to Key West.

The cherished indoor bathroom.
The cherished indoor bathroom.
All the original furniture.
All the original furniture.
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Ernest Hemingway slept here and maybe Scott Fitzgerald. A steady stream of writers stayed at the Rawlings’ B&B.
Marjorie wrote at this table, probably with an icy margarita!
Marjorie wrote at this table, probably with a whiskey near at hand.

 

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Creating a Character: It’s a Wild Ride

A friend recently asked me how I created the characters for Threshold, my first novel. As all new writers do, I took classes, read books about character development, and read great character writers. Yet, nothing prepared me for what happened as I began to write the story.

Carla takes over!
Carla takes over!

In Threshold, Dr. Carla Connor took over. She did not follow the path I had planned for her. She emerged as a person who changes considerably over the course of the story, finding new parts of herself not even in her own plan for her life. She impacted other characters so that I had to reshape them as well. Yet Carla was perfect for my intent.

Nobody tells you about this phenomena. Just Google “How to Develop Character” and see what comes up. There is nothing about the character coming alive and driving the narrative.

Louise Erdrich, whose characters pop from the page, explained this phenomenon recently with the release of her National Book Award novel, The Round House. Listen to this interview. If you do not want to listen to all of it, advance  to 4 minutes where she explains how a 13-yr old boy took over her story, how she lived his experience, and even how she misses him now that the book is “out there”

So go be kidnapped by characters; let them show you the way to the end. Just a warning: the process also comes with mile-high drafts, buckets of sweat and tears, emotional ups and downs, and slings and arrows.

Wonder who I will meet in my next book?

 

 

The Tucson Ghost of Times Past

Readers know that I’ve been blogging about an uncanny web of contacts and events that keep me ever tied to Tucson. Last week I wrote about how I became friends with a fellow ex-Tucsonan through our mutual membership in the West Florida Literary Federation. We both settled in Pensacola never knowing each other while in Tucson.  Threshold book coverVictoria became an important part of the writers who helped me while I completed Threshold which will be released in November by Fireship Press in Tucson.

ANOTHER UNCANNY TUCSON CONNECTION

While assisting the West Florida Literary Federation to bring two major New York City poets to Pensacola, I learned that one of them – Barbara Henning – lived in Tucson (while I was there) and was on the faculty at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. This link to the Poetry Center features a series of upcoming readings by poets with the focus on climate change which is the subject of my novel. I plan to attend Joy Harjo’s reading and then stay on in Tucson to promote the release of Threshold which means I will miss Barbara Henning’s performances and workshops in Pensacola during the Foo Foo Festival — our local celebration of arts and culture.

What is it that draws people to Tucson? To Pensacola? Check back soon to read “A Tale of Two Cities” and my migratory route between them over a 20 year period.

 

The Tucson Connection

My romance with Tucson seems predestined.  This long relationship began in my childhood with Dad’s assignment to Davis Monthan AFB.

Fifty years later, I moved back to Tucson to accept a position as Director of Education at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. Little did I know that a future friend and writing fellow was finding her way to Tucson from her home in the Republic of Columbia, in northwest South America. We never met while we lived in Tucson but we would later share our love of the desert in a more tropical habitat.

That is because both of us left Tucson and ended up in Pensacola, Florida. Vicki is a member of the Portfolio Writers’ Group, one of many writing groups in the West Florida Literary Federation. She is a poet and talented painter who not only continues to inspire my writing, but who, by virtue of membership, became an early editor of drafts of  the Threshold manuscript.

For me it was wonderful having a talented writer/friend who knew Tucson and is bilingual. She was able to spot problems and to provide correction to Spanish terms and translations. (Vicki is a Spanish instructor at the University of West Florida and provided instruction for students at the University of Arizona while in Tucson.)

It seems that wherever I go, Tucson follows along. I am so glad because it is a community that won my heart. I even bled for it (see previous blog). That initiation got buried in my unconscious. Good thing. I might never have returned!

My Tucson "Connection"
My Tucson “Connection”

See Victoria’s new book of poetry including her gorgeous painting.

Right of Passage in a Monsoon Storm

moth-daturacroppedWhen I fist moved to Tucson, Arizona, I was new to the high desert. Biologists refer to its flora and fauna as “lush”–a term that up until then I would not have chosen for a desert.

Through colleagues at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, I learned about a poetry reading at University of Arizona by Dr. Ofelia Zepeda, 

Dr. Zepeda is a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, a lifelong desert dweller, a linguist, and cultural preservationist. In 1999 she was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship for her work creating a Tohono O’odham book of grammar. However, Dr. Zepeda’s poetry is what I wish to focus on and how the chance encounter with her performance in the first week of my residency in Tucson led to my deep feeling for a place and community as culturally rich as any I’ve known.

The poetry reading took place in the circular auditorium (kiva) in the American Indian Studies Department at U.A. In the large room with rows pitched down toward the lectern in its center, a soft voice rose and fell. Dr. Zepeda’s was reading from her book, Ocean Power She spoke in O’odham and English, alternating between each as she read.  I closed my eyes to listen to the language of desert communities at Tucson’s origin.

She explained the relationship of her family and community to rain in the desert, its precious nature, and how, after the long hot, dry foresummer, the first monsoon clouds gather, and people point and wait for the first cold dollops of rain.

After her lecture, I walked to my hot, dusty car to drive home. Not long after I was on the road, a massive monsoon cloud, as black as coal, threw lightening strikes like explosions on the ground, and rain burst from the sky, falling n buckets, cleansing the car and blinding my sight. I had to pull over. Flood waters gushed around drains, cars stalled as the water rose, but all the people smiled behind their windshields or stood outside their vehicles with open arms, letting the storm soak them to the bone. It was a celebration, first delivered through Dr. Zepeda’s poetry and, then, by the monsoon itself.  I believe to this day that hearing about rain on the desert in O’odham made the impact of the storm much deeper for me. It was a true rite of passage. Listen to a short video about Dr. Zepeda.

 

Beverly and Jennifer Acierno Special Education Scholarship

Please help us build this fund. The first scholarship was awarded to Brittany Piper who is studying for an MA in Exceptional Student Education with an emphasis in Applied Behavior Therapy.

Online Home of Susan Feathers

Veterans' Day 2013 062In 2010 my sister Beverly Acierno passed away unexpectedly. She had recently retired from the Escambia County Public School District where she served as a Learning Disabilities teacher (the county’s first) and later helped develop and manage the program. For so many years we heard about her students, about her advocacy for students and their families in court, and the trips and presentations she made on behalf of the ECPSD. My family and I met many colleagues at her funeral and listened as they remembered Beverly’s passion for kids. One said, “It’s an end of an era; they just don’t make them that way anymore.”

My Niece, Jennifer Acierno Theisen, spent many of her schools days in the same school building as her mother. They were a pair. Jenny was an excellent student, eventually graduating from Washington High School. She earned a scholarship to Florida State University to study performance art, and later transferred…

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Ways of Knowing

SUNSETI’ve lived in the coastal South since July 2008. That is exactly 7 years to the month—the periodicity that apparently rules over my whereabouts.

Seven is a number associated with the personal journey, the desire to refresh perspective, endeavor, and relationships. The mystery is figuring out what that means in the latest warp of one’s universe.

Over my lifetime, I have devoted time to reset my internal compass, appreciating that life is a fleeting experience and one to be taken seriously but also with alacrity.

Between 1985-89, living in Southern California, I studied shield-making with a Native American teacher. She was patient and methodical in helping me understand this ancient spiritual practice. I continued to make personal shields through 1999. I saved only two of many. Each time I find them, stored in my belongings, they usher back the time and emotions when I created them as a way of knowing.

Basic Idea: A circular shield contains four quadrants which are directional, representing distinct aspects of an individual’s or a group’s spiritual journey. Each quadrant is given a specific color. North: white for wisdom and peace; white buffalo. South: red or green for innocence and receptivity; mouse. West: black for sunset, introspection and exit at death; bear.  East: yellow for sunrise, inspiration and the divine; eagle.

The circular shield itself is symbolic of the Earth, the Universe, the tribe, the family, or the whole individual. The first shield I made used an embroidery hoop as the frame. I stretched canvas over it and painted the shield. But that was just to start learning the meaning of the elements.

A willow branch is traditional for making the hoop. But that varies by region. In true shield making the artist collects the materials from nature with prayers given and tobacco offered as the willow branch, animal skin, and objects are collected. My first teacher allowed me to intuitively choose objects which she provided: feathers, shells, ribbons, etc.

If you wish to study shields, a good place to start is the collection at the National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C. If you have not been there, you should plan to go. It is a magnificent place. Online travelers will also find great educational articles and webcasts. You can explore the collections online as well. The current exhibit on the Inka Civilization is an amazing opportunity to understand the great wisdom of indigenous people and how their knowledge and experience can inform modern society.

Links to Explore:

Live Web Casts from the Naitonal Museum of the American Indian

Shield Making Materials

Seven Arrows by Hyemeyohsts Storm

Book Clubs Rock!

book club 2 If someone told me I’d be facilitating book club discussions this year, I would have thought they had the wrong person. But it’s true. I now facilitate three books clubs with a fourth possible. The book club discussions are part of my work as a Land Ethic Leader for the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Wisconsin. Leaders create ways to spark discussions about Leopold’s Land Ethic which addresses how communities can come together to protect and conserve human and natural resources. Leopold’s writing, published in A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University Press, 1949) is considered a classic on land and wildlife conservation. I carried a thumb worn copy through 25 years as an environmental educator.

book club meeting with Jean Sparks and Susan FeathesBut why book clubs? New cognitive research shows storytelling and fiction as the most powerful agents for engaging the imagination. I realized novels might be a fun and effective way to engage people in land ethic discussions. However, I did not anticipate how readily people embraced the idea! Two book clubs in the Pensacola area are reading more than one novel. The discussions are vital and personal.

The Interesting Women book club in Melbourne, Florida read Caleb’s Crossing (Geraldine Brooks, 2011) about early American history. One book club member’s husband is an 11th generation descendent of a Wampanoag woman and Puritan settler (married in 1635). The book focuses on these two cultural groups and how they evolved a land ethic. A special meal was served including Mock Whale—chuckeye steak, beef liver, and fish sauce! All the food served related to a scene in the novel.

Update: One of the members of the book club in Melbourne sent this note: “This appears to me to validate your idea of changing attitudes by encouraging reading about it in fiction/stories.  Sounds as though you’re on the right track.

http://www.npr.org/2015/05/01/403474870/does-reading-harry-potter-have-an-effect-on-your-behavior

One of my professors long ago was of the opinion that Mao Tse-tung overthrew Chiang Kai-Chek’s regime in China in the 1930s and 1940s by using folk songs to sway the opinions of the largely illiterate peasants, folk songs being another form of story…”    It’s an interesting world.”

The Aldo Leopold Foundation will feature these activities in their blog about Land Ethic Discussions. Serendipitously, I stopped by the Marjorie Kinning Rawlings State Park on the way home. In my tour group I met eight women from Sarasota. We ate lunch at the Yearling Restaurant. When I asked how they happened to be traveling together, you might guess the answer. Yes, they’re a book club!

Sweet Leilani – Our Mother

Sweet Lailani, Our Mother Performing Hula She Learned at the Bishop School in O’ahu in 1949Mom Performing Hula in Michigan[Also see links on blog about Hawaiian history and culture.]

Our mother was known as Mickey Jones when she was a teenager and “20-something”. Born in a small town in Tennessee she longed for places far and away. She loved beautiful things and wanted adventure in her life. Mom loved to sing and to dance. She was an excellent cook. As a military wife of a career Air Force pilot, Mom set up homes all across the U.S. and in Hawai’i.  I have very lovely remembrances of Mom and Dad in Hawai’i. They were very much in love. These are kid memories so fuzzy and sensory. A sweet scent of plumeria wafted from my Mother. She was happy in Hawai’i. Dad was a pilot on Hickam Air Force Base established in 1941 to protect Pearl Harbor and near by Honolulu.

Hawai’i was still recovering from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet the natural beauty of the islands was already transforming the tragedy to the pervasive love and ease natural to the island kingdom. Mom hummed Hawaiian songs, Dad played a lot of slack key guitar music on a phonograph. He wore colorful silk shirts; Mom wore sarongs filled with flowers. She wove flowers in our hair and we often wore leis. I remember making leis from aromatic blossoms at a picnic table under a towering banana tree with leaves like green rafts hovering above.

Mom learned traditional hula from a teacher who told stories about her ancestors who came from Polynesia. Later Mom performed more modern forms of hula for military families at bases where we were stationed around the U.S. The photo above is in Michigan at Selfridge AFB. Through our mother we carried the heart and soul of Hawai’i in our hearts. This day the stories told through the dance and chanting of traditional Hawaiian music remain with me as some vestige of a true connection with the Earth Mother. See link to the Merrie Monarch Festival and the Prince Lot Hula Festival.

[I recently found this new story and art animation about the original Hawaiians, and authentic experience in the form of old time storytelling: Voyagers – The First Hawaiians. **Highly recommended.] “The discovery of Hawaii told through the art of Herb Kawainui Kane in stunning 2.5 animation.”

I often think about my mom. She would have many struggles later in her life but in her youth and early days of rearing kids and being a wife she was a joyful person, filled with hope and love of nature. She was high-spirited. This is the mother I remember, honor and love with all my heart. She brought elegance to simple spaces, traditions to an otherwise mobile lifestyle, and always a sense of wonder about the world at large. On this Mother’s Day I honor her for what she gave me and my sisters and all who come after us….

The Good Mind

The legacy of the Peacemaker [the man credited with bringing the Iroquois Nations together under a Pax Iroquois] is best illustrated in his concept of The Good Mind. The Peacemaker believed that a healthy mind naturally seeks peace and that a nation of individuals using reason and harboring good will in their hearts can not only establish peace in the worst circumstances but maintain it forever.

At the time the Peacemaker was born, the region was beset by wars among the five tribes (Onandaga, Mohawk, Huron, Seneca, and Cayuga). In some areas the hatred ran so deep that individual warriors practiced cannibalism on their enemies. These dark times were at least 1,000 years before the Europeans arrived in what is now New York State.

There are noteworthy circumstances surrounding the Peacemaker. First, his grandmother had a dream that a great man would be born who would save the tribes from utter destruction. He  was recognized as a youth for his exceptional qualities of mind as someone who would become a leader. But he had a problem—a speech impediment (stuttering)—which later required the assistance of the great Iroquois orator, Hiawatha, to help him accomplish his mission to bring the tribes of his nation together under the Great Tree of Peace—the democracy of constitutional laws and principles that exist to this day.

When I began studying with my teachers in Yuma, Arizona (see previous blog post, The First American Democracy) I was completely unaware of this body of law, the Iroquois legacy of which some passed into the U.S. Constitution, nor was I aware that the Iroquois Confederacy had maintained peaceful coexistence for 750 years before the founding of the fledgling American democracy.

The most important lesson of my four years of study was the reading of Basic Call to Consciousness, written as an address to Western civilization in the 1970’s when the Iroquois were still under threat and domination by the powers that be: the Canadian government and New York State legislature. Basic Call is still relevant in its astute analysis of the values that drive Western societies and how they lead to the destruction of the very basis of life.

In Basic Call to Consciousness Americans have a useful guidebook on how to strengthen our own democracy by broadening our bill of rights to include the natural world and all the life in it as sacred because,  everything emanates from our common Creator. Practically, the document gave the early constitutional authors further reason to formulate a bicameral congress and institute a process of checks and balances. For example, the Peacemaker charged the women of the tribe to act as arbiters of peace by choosing the male leaders and representatives and removing them should their thoughts and actions stray from the sacred purpose of the Great Law.

I remember being shocked to find this gem of a small book in whose pages lay all the wisdom needed to solve entrenched political, economic, and relational problems here and abroad.  But I realized the document was politically dangerous in the U.S. precisely because it would prevent greed and avarice from being the dominant drivers in our social and cultural enterprises. In fact, when my teachers suggested I read it, the book was out of print and hard to find. But I eventually did find a used copy at the Bohdi Tree bookstore in Los Angeles. It was considered an occult book and probably still is by a society that relegates any true challenge to its economic values as dangerous and suspect.

Today you can find Basic Call to Consciousness on Amazon.com. I consider that progress!