Literary Historical Fiction | Essays | CNF and Journalism
I'm a seasoned journalist, writing for my living since 1982. I have a BA in journalism and MA in Early 20th C British Lit. I was the founding editor of a weekly city newspaper and have edited several city and alt-news magazines. I was Poet Laureate emerita of Alameda, CA (2014-17).
My essays have appeared most recently in Huffington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle; also in Salon, Narratively, Thrillist, Medium, Disney/Babble, Woman’s Day, House Beautiful, Country Living, Redbook, Sweatpants & Coffee, and The Sun magazine. I am also frequently published in poetry journals.
I have said my farewells to my eldest daughter and her lovely husband, as well as our German exchange student daughter (from 2011) and their friend from New York, all gone from here yesterday and flying out of SFO today and tomorrow. The house is quiet and empty. It is good to feel I can get to work again, and start to plant my tomatoes and lavender, and hear my own thoughts. I did a yoga routine this morning, first time since my surgery in January. I’m throwing sheets into the wash, filling the dishwasher full with the last of our last supper dishes, making a shopping list, thinking about what to do next. My mind has been so full of the immediate, the moments we were in, and I haven’t looked forward a bit. Time to restretch that muscle and see what I have on my new to-do list.
We took the month of April to brave the rain and the miles of travel and gathered to say farewell, at last, to our late son Austin. M & L came from Australia, F came from Germany, J came from Maryland, C came from New York, E&E came by train from Shasta. We met at the seaside–or rather, bayside, in Alameda, to sprinkle ashes and write Austin’s name in the sand, before the waves washed him away. The following photos are some of how we said farewell.
My youngest daughter Anastasia asks me where Jesus came in the line of human evolution―was he before or after Cro-Magnon Man?
I beg the question for a moment, try not to burst out laughing while I ponder the irony―some people don’t believe that there was a Cro-Magnon Man. But rather than delve into evolution versus creation, I simply answer, “After. Definitely after.”
Other questions are not so easily answered. I overhear her discussing with Simone the issue of whether Jesus had blond hair. One cannot take the queries of childhood too lightly, so I politely intervene and begin a discussion of how Jesus probably looked―long, dark hair, a beard, olive or tan skin.
“But no one really knows what Jesus looked like,” I conclude.
“I know what he looked like,” she says. Of course she does―she went through six years of catechism, has holy cards in her dresser drawer, wore the white Communion dress and veil. How could she not know? But the journalist in me perseveres.
“Well, there are really no pictures of Jesus,” I say.
Now, to get her response just right, you have to practice your most withering, scathing pre-teen tone of voice. Try saying, “You’re a f**cking moron,” over and over. That’s how Ana replies.
“There are pictures of Jesus―I’ve seen them.”
I bite back a laugh and tell her that the camera had yet to be invented for, oh, close to 2,000 years after Jesus departed the planet, and that any pictures she’s seen have been artists’ renderings. She is not convinced. Her mother is a f**cking idiot. She leaves the room in a huff.
I am grateful that there haven’t been harder questions put to me―like trying to explain the existence of God, or why there is hate and hurt in the world. Because inevitably such questions would bring up my own issues of faith, my own faltering belief system, and I would have to say, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”
How to explain why I still have the rosary beads hanging from my rearview mirror but no longer use them for prayer, or how we used to say grace at meals but now find it difficult to even get to the same table in the same house at the same time? Why we still light the Advent wreath at Christmas, how we bless ourselves when we get onto the freeway, but rarely darken the doorway of any house of worship?
How can I explain so many things that I don’t know the answer to? Like how to account for the marriage-shaped hole in my heart that took away the greater portion of my faith when it left? I don’t know.
When their father and I were still married, we lived in a house with an orange tree in the backyard. Whenever the weather was nice, we could sit on a blanket in the yard, and my little girls chased butterflies and picked dandelions while I planted flowers, weeded and hung out clothes to dry. We’d play for a while in the sunshine, then pick oranges from the tree and peel and eat them right away. We’d wash away the sticky juice from our fingers with the garden hose.
In those days I was sure of everything―my house, my family, my future, my faith. But how can we be really sure of anything?
The things we thought were set in stone have vanished, and we are flung out into the world on our own.
It is difficult to tell my young daughters that everything will be as they plan, that everything will work out exactly right, when I am no longer convinced, when I can no longer choke out pleasantries about religion, or the family we used to be.
But too much of that kind of pondering makes one rigid with fear.
So I go to my garden, where everything returns again in spring. I plant bulbs like dead lumps in the ground in the fall, and they make an appearance―thin spears of green piercing through the loam, then opening with a bounty of color.
Is there anything more perfect than a daffodil in spring? Than a single white iris? The first rosebud to open, or new leaves on a birch tree unfurling like tiny green flags? Is there a lovelier sight than an apricot tree in full bloom, or the first tiny violets making their sweet way through the dead leaves of winter?
When I can’t explain anything to my daughters about the world, the heavens and life now or if there is one to come, I go to the garden and sink my fingers into the dirt, where everything is simple and real.
The dry bulbs go into the ground, they come up in the spring, they die and are reborn. It is the simplest resurrection. It is the smallest inkling of faith.
We’ve been in the 1880s house for a little over a year now, and have gotten to know her creaks and groans. We lost a housecleaner who felt a ghostly presence in the upstairs bedroom. I’ve found hundreds of pennies in the dirt and grounds, mementos perhaps of the previous owner, Penny, who passed away just as we were taking possession of the house. We have been visited by neighbors who have rejoiced at the resurrection of this old house, from its decrepitude to its new life as our home. And we have lived through a year in real seasons, with snow, heat, power outage, wildfire, and autumn colors. We love life in the mountains. Living *in* history has been well worth the loving effort of renovation.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So 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.