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.
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.
I’m heading south and east this week to dig into some family history, the in-person research I can do only in person in 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.
I’ve come to that cross-road in a writer’s life where she has to choose between writing what she wants and writing what earns her bread. It might even be one of those modern five-way stoplights where several roads merge and one must decide whether to turn gently to the right, to join the path ahead, or — most alarming of all — veer to the left and go against the traffic, hoping for a break in the rush to slip across. What to do?
And I think I might go for the difficult and risky choice.
This is absolutely one of those moments where, if speaking to young writers, I might say, “Do as I say and not as I do.” Because who would counsel a writer to leave off the path toward Easy and instead push forth into the Difficult? You want success? Don’t do this.
But then I think of all the advice given to me, especially in the past few years, about “Follow your bliss,” and “Do what you love.” Let the angels lead you where they will. I think of the quote from poet Mary Oliver, “I want to think again of dangerous and noble things. I want to be light and frolicsome. I want to be improbably and beautiful and afraid of nothing as though I had wings.” Angels, again. So, I think, well, maybe I should. Maybe it’s time to chase this.
What is the this? It’s a long story, so to speak: My family history, reaching back into long ago when my people first put foot on American soil. Before it was American. Or after, just a century ago, before two great wars and women’s suffrage and Prohibition. I’m looking at my roots, of getting here, of what was left behind and what they came for, and what they achieved, and what it cost. And whom it cost.
So think of slavery and the Trail of Tears. Think of the British Raj and the Industrial Revolution. Think of the Orphan Train, of blood and bones. And — of healing, atonement, and mercy.
Oh, I don’t know how to write any of it, either. I’ll have to get there and see. But I’m finding myself obsessed with the vision I have for this story, and the possibilities. Maybe I’ll give it a year and see what happens.
Maybe I’ll be afraid of nothing as though I had wings.