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.

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.

 

Fill Your Paper…

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.
–William Wordsworth

When I sit to write my blog, I am like the slot machine that comes up with one lemon, one X and one banana peel. It takes a few pulls to get gold. As I sat late this Sunday evening to write the elusive *something* I wanted to write, I saw the clipped-out graphic with those words from the aptly named Wordsworth. So, to follow my own instructions, here is what is breathing in my heart.

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I want to write beautiful, wrenching things that leave clawmarks as I drag them into light.

I want to describe the color of my daughter Simone’s eyes, how they are the greenest, sea-green, peridot jewels, and how sweet or sad they sometimes look. When I see her I remember her a toddler holding my leg with one hand and her bottle with the other, laying her head against me until she was too tired to stand, and then fitting into the crook of my arm while we napped.

I want to describe the things that scare me, or used to scare me, that don’t scare me as much as exhaust me, bore me, weigh on me anymore. How they ceased to frighten and turned to lead. How they still drag on me, without fear, but yet with consequences.

When I sit at my desk the hourglass trickles away the grains of time and will I ever get to say it all, spill the words that clog my throat? Will I die before they make it to the page? Will the daily drag, like sodden clothes weighing me down in a flood, keep me from that end?

I want to have left it better than when I came in. Better stories, cleaner air and water, rebuilt lives, warmed hearths. I want there to be lions and elephants and whales for my great-grandchildren and for theirs, too.

I have words in my head, in my chest, still forming, bumping around like polliwogs without legs and arms, without what they need to stand alone. I’m busy, too busy, and time slips past, and the year is almost over, and I have to do these things, and then the words have dried up, used up all the air and died. I was gonna write about that, but I missed it. It’s over. It was a one-time thing, but — I get anxious, sometimes, and the words are there but the hands won’t perform. Or the words want to come but the anxious makes the body tired, so the words stay in.

I want to write about the stories of my ancestors who struggled, who suffered, who caused suffering — but I need to see it, process it first. So the filing and sorting is going on in my head and I’ll get it right, eventually, if there’s time. If I can just get it down.

I want to think that I’m winning at this, that I’m succeeding in a pool where everyone is splashing at the same time, and it’s hard to see who’s got the ball. Is it my turn? Can I catch it? Can I throw it? Can I even see it coming? Is the water too deep? Am I just going to slip in and get wet, and then get out and dry off and call it a day?

I want to write about bigger, deeper, more — and I’m afraid the instrument is too blunt. I’ll smash it instead of shape it. It won’t work, and no one will want to read it anyway. I want to do it just for me, except I don’t, really, because it’s the tree in the forest without an audience, making noise for whom?

I want a way to harness all this energy, to light up my own world, and maybe yours, if I could just —

If I could only — you know. Write.

Home at the Edge of the World: Alameda Poet Laureate Inaugural Poem

Home at the Edge of the World
Alameda Poet Laureate Inaugural Poem

2015-01-06 13.03.12There are houses down your shaded streets –
beneath your oaks, your ginkos, your avenues of palm –
Leaded in glass, shingled in fish-scale, spangled with gingerbread,
Victorian ladies tarted up for Carnival,
their history and lore curving like a staircase into view.

Gentlemen strolled in spats, ladies swung their parasols,
bay breezes curling with fog and the clank of halyards, snapping flags. Water, at every turn,
glittering to shore, to ship, to ankles and toes.

Neptune would have been pleased to see his name emblazoned,
to hear the calliope, the splash and crank, the punch of tickets.
Men pummeled each other in the ring at Croll’s, the Nickelodeon competing with the cry of merchants, seagulls, girls on the beach.
With popsicles and peanut butter.

The famous train stopped here, golden, spiked. Immigrants worked invisibly,
then vanished from the record,
as if they’d never owned that shop, inhabited this neighborhood.

We’re at the edge of the continent, a dot on the map, an island of sand and silt.
We have our own secrets, our dirty clothes, our backyard politics – small minds and big mouths –
our stories of brutality and red-lining, of spite and malice.

I came here a refugee from the Marriage Wars, empty-handed at Starbucks, where I found a roommate, a latte, a lifeline.
The past was closed to me then, our future uncertain
as airplanes crashed into buildings and fell to dust.
From desperate shores I washed up, crumbled like the missing tower of City Hall.

I didn’t know yet2014-08-27 10.58.35
That in Alameda the past is under your feet, in shell and sand.
That the streets of Bay Farm were paved with the bones of other people’s ancestors.
I didn’t know
That some islands are real and some islands are made.
That we could live here for three generations and still be new.

But I have roots here, I’m an Alamedan, too —

My mother, just a child in the Depression, came down
from tawny oak-strewn hills for sand from the beaches for her sandbox.

My father, just off the ship, his Navy uniform still salt-damp from the Sea of Japan,
took a drink at Wally’s Corner, then
crossed the green bridge, up the road to the University, to stand at Strawberry Creek and think,
I’m finally home.

He brought my mother down Trestle Glen, Park Boulevard, Grand Avenue, Webster, through the Tube to their apartment on Lincoln Avenue – the Ulysses S Grant – to take out trash and mop the halls in exchange for rent.

My brother came, a squalling newborn at the hospital where consumptives once went
to bask in sunlight, to dry their shattered lungs.

He crawled, he walked; my sister followed, and we moved away
to suburbs where there was room to grow.

But I came back.
My daughters became Jets; my stepchildren were Hornets,
my allegiance to the home team shifting when the rent was raised.

I’ve met a prince here, and been a pauper,
and married the same man twice on green grass by the water,
lived in houses big and small, with stories of their own.

2015-07-19 20.32.23Alameda, Alameda, your name is lyrical on my lips —
you showed me how far I could walk on shifting sands before drowning.
Before I was in too deep.
Before I thought to ask for help.
Before I learned to save myself.

Alameda taught me that even the least of terns has power.
That even people living in mansions sometimes lose their beach.
That two newspapers are better than none.
That when there’s trouble, raise the bridges.
That when in doubt, hold a street fair.

Alameda, Alameda, you’ve unfurled me, shucked me like an oyster.
Tell me your secrets. Send me scribbling
to the page.

 

Julia Park Tracey
Alameda Poet Laureate
2014-2016