2020 Vision

Austin Tracey

My apologies for the long silence. When last I wrote here, we had moved to the country and my husband was seriously disabled by his back injuries; he retired and we left the busy East Bay for Wine Country-quiet. I have been working on several projects in that time, namely my historical novel about the Orphan Train mama who lost her children and set about getting them back. That novel is in revisions and needs another deep dive. (Not this week, she said, juggling several pins, but one of these days soon.)

The Crow’s Nest

Another sideline has been our cabin, the Crow’s Nest, which we renovated from the studs out, and welcomed many guests, both as vacationers and as creatives, to come stay with us. Check it out on AirBnB here.

Young Luther Bailey, graduating from Southern University, before he became an engineer, home designer and building contractor. He built some 200 homes in Portland, OR, and Phoenix, AZ, in the 1910s-1940s.
Here’s a link to a recent story I wrote about him
(pg 10-11).

We’ve spent the past two years as innkeepers, and that was entertaining; I’ve been revising the novel, then resting (but still innkeeping) between rewrites. In the “rest” times, I’ve been to writing programs or conferences like the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and Associated Writing Programs. I started another book project, a biography of my great-grandfather Luther R. Bailey, Doris’s father, the architect, and have gathered much of what I need for that project, including publisher interest.

I was buzzing along on this project and chatting with an agent about my historical fiction in early 2019 when our world came to a crashing halt. My stepson, who I raised from age 5, our Boy, Austin took his own life in February 2019. And that has changed everything.

Playful smile with sister Simone last Thanksgiving.

We are learning to live without our Boy, and it has been the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do. We have lived very small in this dreadful year. It’s felt unbearably sad and riddled with confusion and doubts. I have written little and worked almost not at all.

Meanwhile, racism and politics have raged, children are locked in cages, the earth is burning… The Russian River flooded and marooned us in our cabin-on-stilts; my husband had major surgery in May; fires swept the North Bay and we evacuated in the fall… Our son in law lost his childhood home near Sydney, Australia, to wildfires there in November; a tree dropped a huge branch and damaged our roof just last week. And we’re in the middle of a presidential impeachment crisis that we hope will strangle the ugliness of the current administration and begin to lead us back to center.

I got a semicolon tattoo two weeks after losing Austin, and have met others with this powerful symbol of suicide and rebirth.

It’s been a hard year, friends, neither creative nor productive. I set goals in December 2018 that are laughable now; we lead lives that are so other-focused that “2018 Julia” couldn’t even imagine. But I’m writing this — yes, pretty much the first “thing” I’ve written in months — to say that I will write again, we will keep living, our family is stronger for the terrible trials of 2019, and we are making plans for a different life ahead of us.

Nothing is yet confirmed nor written in stone (I mean anything, anywhere in life — but also, for our current plan), but if all goes as it should, we are looking toward a different view in 2020. We are looking at saying yes to life, a kind of resurrection, grabbing on to what we can and living it wholeheartedly.

Fingers crossed that it will happen. Watch this space.

A different window, a new view?

A Whole New World

It’s been a bit since I posted, mostly because my dear husband has had some health issues, which led to his early retirement, which led to us moving from the island of Alameda to the beautiful redwood forest of Sonoma County. He gets to enjoy baseball and all of his favorite sports programs as well as breathe in the fresh air and peaceful surroundings. I get to write on the deck outside, with sky and trees as my ceiling and walls. Honestly, it’s pretty amazing. It did, however, suck up a ton of my time, so I wasn’t able to blog.

I’m writing a historical novel just now, and have been for the past year, off and on, as I could around the adventures of health care, care-giving, and moving. The novel is about a mother who struggles to keep her children after her husband’s death. The year is 1854 and women’s rights are few; the law prohibits them from acting as their own children’s legal guardian when there is property or money involved, and the children are considered “half-orphans.” The setting is New York, and a strong undercurrent is the Hudson River, and the many rivers that sweep us off our feet. She makes a series of choices to protect them and some of those choices may be gross errors, but she has survival in mind. She can’t know the effect of her choices until it’s too late to turn back.

The story is based on my great-grandfather Will Gaston (born William Homer Lozier), who was an Orphan Train baby. After a ton of research, I was able to find his roots, and it was the story of his birth mother that really struck me. I wondered how could a mother give up her children. This literary historical fiction is my way of exploring that question.

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I’ve written about the subject of the Orphan Train and I spoke at the 2017 Orphan Train Complex gathering in Concordia, Kansas, in June. The more I dug into the research, the more kind of obsessed I’ve become. I thought this was going to be a nonfiction history, but as I dug deeper, I realized that the main character’s perspective was missing, and I wanted to give her a voice. Martha Elizabeth Lozier, my fourth great-grandmother, tell us your story!

So I’m writing a novel.

But that’s not all. I’m also working with a dear friend who has started an online/pop-up bookstore called All Things Book. I provide their social media presence and have been blogging about books there. My ATB blog is called Book and Bone and would love to have you follow along.

The other thing that’s taking up my time is our cottage — not the one we live in, but the second one on the property, which we call The Crow’s Nest. We’re hoping to finish refurbishing this little gem so we can offer it as a writing retreat for my writing friends. We’re an hour and a quarter from the East Bay and San Francisco, unless there is a lot of traffic (like Friday night), and trust me, the silence of the trees and the lack of passing sirens, airplanes, cars, and otherwise ambient noise–it makes writing downright pleasurable.

Here’s a pic of the house in progress (it’s a tiny house, 380 sq ft). Hope to have this baby up and available by end of 2017.

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IMG_6052So that’s what I’ve been doing, and this is where you’ll find me — on the deck in the redwoods, or in my little office, writing my novel, my blog, or getting the Crow’s Nest ready for company. Are you ready? Come by and have a glass of wine. News of the development/publication of the novel forthcoming.

Slingshot: This Is Not Where I’m Supposed to Be

 

IMG_2174I waken at about 1 a.m. and stare at the wall, trying not to look at the clock, its white number so stark, so painfully truthful. It’s past midnight. Hours loom before me.

You’re not asleep. This is not your house. This is not your bed. Those are not your children down the hall.

There are no children down the hall. No sighs, no whimpers, no calls for a sip of water. The girls are in their own beds, in the next town. Their father is the gatekeeper. The divorce is not going well and he has decided to keep them all, against their will, against mine, to make me suffer for whatever sins he thinks I’ve committed, most of all, leaving him.

The girls cling to me when I see them, when I turn up at school to catch them before they walk home. The other mothers sneer and turn away. I’m a gorgon, the Medusa who will freeze their blood and bones if they speak to me or smile. Divorce must be a norovirus you can catch by sharing the same bench, standing under the same overhang.

Roll back the tape six months and I was on the PTA, co-chair of the Reading Carnival, helping at Catechism on Thursdays. Girl Scouts on Saturday and dance class on Monday and Wednesday at 4. I took his elderly mother shopping and to the doctor in the mornings, mowed the lawn and cleaned house, whipped up dinner for five each evening. He’d come through the door and pour the first scotch-rocks before he set down his briefcase. It must be a lot, I guess, meeting the endless wants and needs of the wife and three children and the mortgage and minivan he said he wanted.

What he wants is not this. Not us.

I sneak to see them. I promise I will fight. But I don’t know if I can. He’s that powerful, and I’m that weak. During the one year of solitude without my children, I drive back and forth to work each day along the long stretch of road by the airport, around the shorelines of San Francisco Bay. I have to keep my face on for work, as I chase down stories and cover school board meetings. I have to keep it together at my shared apartment, because a weeping woman, especially an older one, is really boring, to say the least. But in my car, each day, I sob and choke my way from home and work, thinking, “I could take some pills,” “I could buy a gun,” or, perhaps most satisfying of all, “I could drive to the bridge, stand at the edge and just let go.” First the terrifying plunge, but then – cold deep water, darkness, silence, an end to everything. I have no idea if I will ever get my children back. I think I’ve lost them forever.

In the middle of the night, the world has stopped for me. There is mayhem and destruction everywhere, not just in my own little life. But I am dead to the world’s events. I don’t care about any of it. I write the news, watch terror and sadness on the television, in the newspapers, with no other feeling than shame, that I am not with my girls, I cannot reach them, I cannot protect them, I cannot mother them, I cannot shelter them, I cannot cry with them, I have become this useless slag, I have failed at the one thing I am biologically equipped to do, I have scorched the earth black with my own misdeeds, so that death and disasters on a global scale mean nothing to me. I’ve been catapulted out of a slingshot on a trajectory I could never have planned, with no way to slow my momentum.

I lie alone in my bed and stare at the black of the wall, the tilted shadows from the street. I think I should pray, but that tank is empty, too, something else to feel guilty for. I lie there counting my failures, my inability to act. Eventually, when the sky begins to pale, I fall into the darkest of dreams, an hour of madness before the morning bell.

This is not what I asked for.

 

From my unpublished memoir, Wedlock.

Behind Closed Doors

2015-05-18 10.13.18October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but it’s also Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Pit Bull Awareness Month, National Pharmacy Month, Pastor Appreciation Month, and Halloween, among other national observances. You can see how easy it is to forget or to overlook something that is, in fact, an epidemic right under our noses.

But before your eyes roll back in your head or slip away to another blog post, let me take it from the general, the theoretical, to the personal. Domestic violence – when someone in the household hurts or harms another – ranges from a parent hurting a child, an adult abusing an elderly family member, a sibling bullying another; the means could be belts or fists, words or secrets, threats or punishment. It’s so repellent that we instinctively turn away. And our turning away, pretending not to see or hear, allows the abuse to continue.

When I was a new editor back in 2001, the newspaper where I worked published the police reports every week (as it still does). One week we ran a report about domestic violence – the incident and general location, as we did with all incidents. There had been an arrest, and we included it in our weekly summation of crime on the island. Unfortunately, the abuser saw the event in the newspaper and when he got out of jail, he went right back and abused his family member again for “telling.” That was the last time domestic violence reports appeared in general listings of police reports in that paper.

A child I knew once showed up at our house with marks on his arm, and when I asked him, he said it was from roughhousing at school, that his friend had given him a wrist-twist and caused the marks. About a year later, after CPS had become involved, I found out those were cigarette burns that the child’s own mother had inflicted on her child.

An acquaintance of mine, a mother I knew from Girl Scouts, came to a meeting with a bruise on her cheekbone and told me she had opened the cabinet and all the pots and pans fell out and hit her face. Later, she had a burn on her arm and said one of her children had pushed her into the stove by accident. After the divorce, she told me her ex-husband had inflicted those and other wounds on her, and she had lied to cover up.2014-01-18 09.09.41

When I was a teenager, the 12-year-old boy living next door came over early in the morning to ask for help. His father had shot his mother and then himself, and the boy didn’t know what to do. His little sister was still asleep and he didn’t know how to get her out without her seeing the bloody living room. An argument had gone terribly wrong, and suddenly two children were orphans.

When I was separating from my ex-husband, who had never laid a hand on me, there was a very bad week when we were both angry and said things that were vicious, and he slammed me in the front door, leaving a huge bruise from shoulder to collarbone; he followed up by calling the police and claiming I was threatening him. It was a he said-she said situation and, without making it worse in front of the kids, all I could do was leave. The bruises did not show up for a few hours, and I was too scared and weary to make a fuss by then.

So there’s a litany for you of events that have occurred right here in the East Bay, in this town, or another local city, where domestic violence had devastating or traumatic, if not deadly, consequences. People wonder why victims stay in the situation, why they don’t just walk away – but physical abuse is more than skin deep. It breaks the spirit, too. The little boy who had cigarette burns never stopped bragging about his mother’s excellent cooking. It always sounded strange to me – but abusers are often very charming, and the honeymoon phase between incidents often brings out the best in an abuser – until it happens again.

Keep your eyes open for the child who walks on eggshells, who defends or brags vigorously about a parent who gives you a funny feeling. Pay attention to elders with bruises or who seem nervous, or penniless when they should be more financially secure. Listen to raised voices or thumps against the walls of your apartment or condo. And be there with your divorcing friends, who are in the most dangerous period as they try to escape. Don’t assume all is well if the divorce gets ugly. It could be your male friends as well as your female friends, straight or gay. Abuse knows no gender, color, religion.

If you need help, call 911. Visit this website (National Network to End Domestic Violence). Be safe and be smart. Make a plan and tell a friend. Don’t be too afraid to reach out. People care and will help you.

And for the rest of us? Be aware that domestic violence is all around us. It’s the least we can do.

*This commentary appears in the Oct. 29, 2015, issue of the Alameda Sun newspaper. Copyright Julia Park Tracey 2015

Birthrights and Wrongs

I’m heading south and east this week to dig into some family history, the in-person research I can do only in person Ole Maryin Alabama. I’ll be staying in Jasper, with forays into Birmingham and down to Alexander City and Hackneyville. Part of the research will be digging into libraries and part will be driving around to see the environs where my forebears were slaveholders.

I’ve found what I could find on Ancestry.com and at my local library; I have looked through old photo albums (hence the photo of Ole Mary washing clothes, from about 1915; it’s very possible she was a former slave). I have purchased deed-mapping software and found information in the strangest of corners online, but nothing beats feet on the ground.

I’ve never been to the south before. The furthest south I’ve been is Charlotte, Virginia, to visit a former relative by marriage, and to Baltimore. But I’m talking deep south, this Alabama journey, into the Black Belt where cotton was king. It’s a new experience for a California native — and part of my evolution. The paradox of moving forward is going backward, to see where I came from, which will help steer me ahead.

In the summertime when I was a child, we had lots of farm chores to do, especially before we went off to play. When I was about 12, my mother left a list of chores for us, and mine was to clear some weeds from the garden. I took the shovel, and I dug and sweated and shoveled, turning over the dirt, breaking a whole new row, fresh soil with no weeds. It took me about two hours in the hot sun to break that row. When I finished, I was so hot and tired I didn’t want to go out and play with a friend.

When my mom got home later that evening she said I hadn’t pulled the weeds.

“Yes, I did — look!” I showed what I had done.

But she shook her head, and showed me where the weeds were still standing in the rows already planted. What I could have done in ten minutes — pull the weeds and be on my way — I had not seen, had missed altogether. I still had to pull those weeds the next day — but I had broken ground, made the garden bigger.

Somewhere in there is a metaphor for privilege — just pulling a few weeds and skipping away, when someone has done all the work of breaking the soil, throwing the rocks aside, making it friable and fine enough for seed. I’ve done it both ways, the easy and the tough, and believe me, it was galling to think how hard I had worked when I could have had it easy. I imagine if I always did the hard part and someone else always did the easy job, I would be pretty fed up.

Am I a good person? Am I in integrity with my roots, with my future actions? Am I standing on the backs of others who broke the path? Enjoying the fruits of someone else’s labors? Am I bold enough to tell the story I find, regardless of what it is? Of how, or whom, it hurts?

I have many thoughts going through my mind as I prepare for this first venture into the past. But consider this a vow: Whatever I find, I’ll write about it, unflinchingly. I hope to tell it well enough so you want to read it, too.