Friday, February 5, 2016

flash fiction prompts 4 & 5

#5 Prompt based on visual:
The pocket watch in her hand. The last thing he handed to her, the one he has inherited from his father. Every time she opened it, it was off a minute but that didn’t matter. Every time she opened it she remembered that he was so sick at the end, it was a relief when he let go. Every time she opened it she remembered that once upon a time she had been his princess, his Buttons, his Sugarpops, and at the end, his Angel. "My Angel," as she swabbed his mouth since he could no longer take in anything orally. Whispered. Did she actually hear his voice or was it only her imagination, her wanting to hear one last word? If the pocket watch lost a minute a day, how long before it lost a whole day, a year? Would it be like peeling back time? How long before she could put it away and remember the corny jokes and laughter, the car rides with her arm hanging out the window, the breeze blowing back her hair, the spontaneous picnics: stopping at a gas station for soda, at a roadside stand for apples, a hunk of cheese and bread already in a basket? How long before she remembered the way he cheered at her basketball games and frowned as he scrutinized her dates? His sad eyes when she packed up to move to the big city? The dollars slipped into every envelope, her purse when she came home to visit? How long before the good memories overcame the horror of his last choking breath?

#4 Prompt based on conversation:

“Anna, are you going out again?” No, Mother, I just spent an hour putting my make up on and styling my hair because I am staying home, with you. Because I want to hear your complaints. Let’s see, we’ve covered my brother’s stupidity and lack of good TV shows, the neighbors’ tree shedding leaves on your side of the fence, the latest too-revealing fashions and the way the Puerto Ricans take over the sidewalks. I have heard about your aches and pains of arthritis and the latest argument with your doctor and the way the nurse was so rude. I just struggled to get on these pantyhose that I actually hate wearing because they roll over and make me feel fat and the heels that make my feet ache, so I can sit and listen to you groan about the inferior garbage service that Dad hired before he died. I love to eat fattening snacks with you before bedtime. Of course, I have my cell phone so you can track me down. In case you have those heart palpations again. In case the panic comes back and you feel isolated and alone, out here in the middle of nowhere. No, Mother, I just want a breath of air, a drink, a reason to sway to the music even if it’s from a jukebox. “I don’t feel so good, Anna. Can you make me a cup of that tea you brought me? The one that soothed me down?” “Yes, Mother.” Yes, I am taking off the heels and the pantyhose. What was I thinking? That I could leave you alone again, that I could escape? “Let’s find a movie to watch on pay-on-demand. Don’t worry, I’ll pay for it.” 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

flash fiction challenge day #2 and #3


She unfolds the dress, shakes it out, and slowly glides her hands into the pockets, hoping that there might be something there. A surprise. A memento. A glimpse of the happy day she wore it for the first time. The only time. She recalls so clearly standing in sunlight The bouquet left golden streaks of pollen on her hands and she worried that if she wiped her hands on the cream linen, it would stain. She recalls the voice of the female justice of the peace, how surprisingly deep it was. The black flutter of the justice's official garment. The cooling breeze that dried the sweat left along her forehead and between her thighs. She recalls how earnestly he gazed into her eyes, until everyone and everything else dissolved. And she remembers the catch in her throat when she said those old-fashioned words “Til death do us part.” She had suggested they write their own vows, speak aloud in front of witnesses, voice at last what was burning in their hearts, but he laughed at her. “Write vows, whatever for?” What she can’t remember is how they got from the courthouse to the party afterwards. It is all a blur. Champagne. Surely there was champagne? Did she eat? Sometimes joy or fear made it hard to swallow. She vaguely recalls how they embraced for a photographer’s flash. She can’t believe that it has been already six years since she left him behind after he cheated on her. She can’t believe there is nothing in the pocket, not a dried lily petal, not a handwritten note (she remembers they would write each other notes and leave them on pillows or in the fridge), not a trace of sugar, not even a wrinkle where the ring lay just before she pushed it onto his finger.  

Smoke billows thick and black from the chimney of the deserted house but instead of running away, she walks closer. Astonished. After all the twists and turns, saving for months from her paycheck, the scramble to get her birth certificate in order to get a passport, the days of planning and phone calls and emails to the couple renting her a room through airbnb, she can’t believe that she is so close and now it is going up in smoke. Or at least something is going up in smoke. She pauses and squints, follows the plume rising into the cold air. Only a fire in the fireplace, not a house fire then. How can this be a coincidence? She knows from the letter of the bookseller in the village that the house has sat deserted for years. He wrote that even the windows were intact. The house’s reputation and the proximity to the vicarage protected it from vandalism. Who is inside the house? She doesn’t want to think about why someone is there. Waiting for her?  The manuscript and the map are inside that house. She hopes the keys are there as well. The diary indicated that they are. The diary from her Uncle Jack, found in the bottom of a pile of faded photographs, scrapbooks, bills, half torn calendars, and then a series of sketches was the impetus to set her off on this mad goose chase. She has risked everything to get here. She isn’t going to stop until she has answers. But her quick pace slows to a more thoughtful one as she approaches the house. The house is covered in ivy and cracks run under the windowsills. The front steps sag, the paint peels away, leaving splintered wood. The windows are grimy and brass doorknob tarnished. She tries it in her hands. It turns and the door swings open. “Oh, it’s you,” she says, and pushes past him into the foyer.

flash fiction challenge day 1: It's Our Family

I began my flash fiction challenge on February 1st. hosted by Marjorie Altman Tesser from Mom Egg Review. ‪#‎febflash=Feb. Flash Fiction Challenge--Write one piece of flash each day in Feb.We will be featuring daily tips, optional writing prompts, advice, and encouragement from established fiction authors and editors. Scroll down to see them, or visit this link for all tips and prompts posted so far:

My challenge is to write short fiction. I write long narrative poems, memoir pieces of up to 3000 words and novels. Short stories have never been my forte. I took on the challenge to see if I caould do it and to see what might inspire me. My first piece is below:
The challenge was from RICK MOODY "Write a story with no modifiers (i.e., no adjectives, no adverbs)." My first attempt ended at 1400 words. Flash fiction by definition is less than 1000 words and the suggestion is to get 250 words down each day. So I went back and edited. It is still 870 words. I think I will develop it into a longer story.

It's Our Family

The fighting in the back seat escalated from annoying to maddening. The 12 year old’s pummels left bruises. The 9 year old boy cried but he had started it, singing out of tune to his ipod and flinging out his arms. Her son, driving, ignored it; her daughter-in-law, exacerbated it with threats that meant nothing. The three year old contentedly watched a movie on his laptop with earphones so large, he looked like a pilot. Grandma’s pleas to stop fighting didn’t make a dent. Gritting her teeth was not only making her joints ache but her heart. It was not the trip she imagined to spread her younger son’s ashes.

As the miles passed, her hopes that this family gathering could mend the past faded. Now she only hoped they could get through it, salvage at least the fun of camping. She imagined waking up to birdsong, sitting peacefully by the campfire. “Look out the window,” her son told the little guy. “We’re in nature!” They passed towering rocks on one side and the shimmer of the lake on the other. “Where, where?” the boy said, turning his head to the window and back, puzzled.

Yoan had decided the tenth anniversary was the time to spread his portion of his brother's ashes. He chose the river where they had camped together before children and nights without sleep and alcoholic down-swings and complicated mortgages. Josiah had left behind a son who would meet them at the campsite with Grandpa Don. Grandma had spread Josiah’s ashes at the Chama River where they had camped when she was pregnant; Don had spread his at the mountain where they used to ski. The fiancée was in rehab. Grandma worried about scars left behind.

She remembered the day she had spooned the ashes into several containers, one for her, one for Yoan, one for Don, one for the fiancée. How it fell to her to do because even though her life had shattered, she was more capable of organizing memorials and candle light vigils and altars, digging through piles of photographs, choosing cremation, purchasing urns. She went back to work for a year, then disappeared to Puerto Vallarta and margarita sunsets until one day she said to herself, What the hell am I doing? and moved lock, stock and barrel to Minnesota, to help out with Yoan’s kids.

Dividing the ashes was one of her most vivid memories, scorched on her eyelids and her heart. Releasing her share of his ashes was part of a series of rituals to shake loose the despair that settled into her soul. But only time would dull the pain, she would learn, despite everything she tried: counseling, support groups, art classes, workshops, travel, margaritas, yoga, grandsons.

They pulled into the campground where Don waited for them and claimed two sites next to the river. Nate fell in, soaking his shoes. Linda scolded. Then they began the hike, stopping by the tourist station to consult maps. Yoan remembered that it took an hour, but they were younger then. The trail was rugged, root-tangled, pine needle slick. Nate offered to take the dog, which kept both of them under control. The pre-teen boys discussed football. The little guy walked by himself.  Her feet ached but she kept going, determined.

The beach was covered in sharp rocks, no where to sit and catch her breath. They stood in an awkward circle. A few words were said, but the waterfall was loud, impossible to hear anything unless they shouted. While they waited for hikers to pass, the dog took off up the hillside and had to be retrieved. The urns were opened and upturned and powdery gray ashes swirled to join the water. The kids skipped stones. Photos were taken.

He was gone, even the last bits of bone. They each had to reconcile with the loss in their own way. His death divided them, too painful to talk about, once the last photos had been packed away, the urn that Yoan inherited parked on a shelf. What do you say when someone is in so much pain, they see no other way out? How can you reconcile it with the kind young man who was always optimistic? The tree they planted was barely surviving, no one had the heart to take care of it. The house he couldn’t really afford now someone’s else’s burden. She had cried until she felt drowned, submerged.

The kids were eager to get back to hotdogs and s’mores. The dog led the way, his tail wagging. The little one had to be carried. She couldn’t believe her feet could still move.

The adults sat by the campfire talking of everyday this and that: jobs, school, past and upcoming vacations. The boys tossed around a football until the fire was hot enough for hot dogs. Yoan stripped a stick for her to toast marshmallows for the little guy, who crawled into her lap. This was her moment of grace: whatever was left of her child was collected here, by the fire. Broken in places, grieved beyond measure, sibling rivalry for the cousin’s attention, the little one nestled against her, they were still family, all the family she needed.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Christmas Message and News 2015

Dear Friends and Fellow Travelers,
I am blessed in so many ways. I never wanted to live here but it is here that I have found community, opportunities, inspiration. And as well, the awareness that changes are needed in our culture and our world as we bear witness to those whose lives and voices must no longer be silenced. You may have heard that Minneapolis is one of the best cities to live in. You may not know it is one of the worst for black people, including one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. What we are called to do is to speak up and stand as allies for people of color—so that is what I am doing before I share my accomplishments of this past year, while I have your immediate attention. Please think of how you can speak up, be an ally, for those who struggle for justice, for their lives. It’s possible to do more than just show up at protests. There is showing up at your place of work or local hang out by saying something when someone is unthinking, racist, intolerant. There is educating yourself by listening and reading. And there is offering what you can in the way of space, visibility, opportunities instead of deferring to the usual people you know. Reach out. That’s my message for the holidays. Be the peace you want to see by being the human you imagine you can be.

 Most of you know that I was honored to facilitate the writing workshop in Stillwater prison in order to have a reading on the topic of remorse during Victim Awareness week. The reading was attended by invited inmates, staff members of the Department of Corrections, Restorative Justice and Victim Services, the commissioner and 9 fellow instructors of Mn Prison Writing Workshop. It was cathartic as the men shared the impact of their crimes on others, finishing with healing stories of self-awareness and transformation. The reading cracked our hearts open. Tears, laughter, and handshakes completed the evening. Teaching this class gave me the inspiration to offer a panel at Split This Rock Poetry Festival in Washington, DC this coming April 2016. I am thrilled that Nell Morningstar and I will present this panel as well as attend readings, workshops and panels on the issues of social justice. The Times They Are
A’Changin’….right? They have to. Right?  I also taught a class at Shakopee women’s prison using an anthology of local African-American writers as our text. It is quite different to write with women. The emotions are closer to the surface; tears flowed as they shared stories of abuse and losing their children. This work is so deepening and fulfilling in ways I can’t describe but I know I am helping to birth stories that need to be told. Our annual reading of MPWW was attended by over 200 people. And the in-house journals, edited by the Stillwater Writer’s Collective with guidance from our instructors, continue to be a wonderful way for our students to see their work in print. Not to mention, some are getting published in journals on the outside.   Those of you who contributed to our fund raiser: it means so much to us to have your support: thank you!  

Another organization I work for is Saint Paul Almanac, collecting stories from diverse communities for the annual publication, now an anthology instead of a datebook, and the StoryMobile, collecting stories through ipads and videos, in locations embedded in the community such as street festivals.

And of course, Unity Minneapolis continues to be such a blessing to me. This year my goal was to help our children meditate. After practicing Centering Prayer with the 4-5th graders, some said it was their favorite part of Sunday morning. Some mornings we do mindful movement or yoga, visualizations or chanting or toning, and some mornings we are actually completely silent and (mostly) still.  When we enter silence together, it is magical.  I also was inspired to create curriculum on celebrating differences: differently-abled (blind, disabled, deaf); different behaviors (Autism, Asperger syndrome, ADD); different families (two moms or two dads); and different gender self-expression (boys who wear dresses, girls who play sports) because our congregation includes differently-expressive people. The Times are a’changing! There is an impressive variety of children’s books on these topics. Our favorite activity illustrated the final lesson—we poked our faces through life-sized painted figures (a karate kid, a princess and a soccer player) and had our photos taken. We also had a fun house mirror and face painting. When I asked the children which was the hardest to try, their answers surprised me: they were not what you think! These were followed by lessons about healing because our founder Myrtle Fillmore healed herself of TB with prayer and Jesus, our teacher and Way-Shower, was a healer. Well….this Sunday when we asked one of our preschoolers if he wanted to sing a Christmas song, he said, “Jingle bells: I am tired of those songs about Jesus!” Next up: Our wishes for the world based on Desmond Tutu’s children’s book and then we have a Muslim guest (a friend of mine and spoken word artist) coming to share the traditions and meaning of Ramadan. I am happily using my creative skills in service of our children’s spiritual development. Lucky I am to work with an incredible, enthusiastic, patient director of Youth & Family Ministry, Nancy Maiello.

With an increase in arthritis pain, a Y membership enables me to attend yoga classes, swim and hot tub. Unfortunately, acute discomfort prevents me from attending evening events the way I used to. Young at heart: but alas, “my body my horse” as May Sarton wrote: slowing down. Can you believe it?

In my own work, the professional edit of my memoir is complete and I am seeking a publisher or agent. Please add your prayers to mine that it finds the right home. It’s a fascinating, complicated, heart breaking, disturbing, healing story to write and to re-live by editing. Poetry has been part of my path to wholeness but during the 10 years I lived communally, I only started to write again at the end. I am lucky to have rekindled my passion and luckier still to have readers. Now may the circle widen. So be it!

Family matters: Boys are doing great. Shawn does payroll for the entire company; he has employees. (That will show you what bringing up children in an alternative lifestyle can do!)  Brenda was accepted into nursing school. Nicholas still loves football, Joshua is quite skilled at ice hockey. Oliver is grandma’s boy (of course!) and loves books, games, puzzles, numbers, and riding the bus. Jason plays basketball and baseball. I’m taking the older boys to see the play Fahrenheit 451. How strange that the futuristic technologies Bradbury predicted have come true. My mom endures, somehow, my dad’s severe dementia, as she turns 80. My next visit is planned for April. Continued prayers welcomed.

These are tumultuous and transformative times. I believe each time we remember who we are and salute those we meet with Namasté, each time we connect deeply to Mother Earth, to our fellow human beings and all God’s creature large and small, each time we accept ourselves as worthy of love and extend that love through an act of kindness, of beauty, of awe and reverence, each time we choose to think a positive thought, light the wick of our candled souls, we are bringing peace to earth. May your heart crack open in wonder and love. May all beings shine forth their light! May your year be filled with whatever delights your soul and brings you joy!

What do you need but the will to move 
through the wilderness of your mistakes
until you recognize each step is a candle
each breath is a prayer
When you melt in the heat of your heart's

desire what will remain? Ash?
Surely not. Surely only flame
Surely only love

Love to you and many blessings, with joyful gratitude, 

Monday, November 9, 2015

The holidays are coming. A time for celebration with family and friends. For some of us, it is also a time of grief, remembering those who are no longer with us, on the physical plane. What I know about grief:

I could be an expert on grief at this point. I have lost many loved ones: a partner, a son, my son’s fiancée, a husband, a sister, a grandmother I was close to, several best friends, people I thought I would live with forever and their children, poetry companions, mentors and elders. I have lost homes and countries where I thought I had found home, said good-bye to children I helped raise and never heard from again, my faith in the Divine and faith in myself. I have been a hospice volunteer. My dad has severe dementia, so I have lost the man he was.

This is what I know: that grief comes in waves, it recedes and flows back but eventually the sharpest pain softens. That anniversaries of any kind—birthdays, day of death, holidays—bring up memories. That we may never feel we got to say all we meant to and that we may never know if our loved ones heard us, despite assurances from mediums that they do.

But I also know that love is not broken or diminished by death. That it lives on, it just becomes long distance or across dimensions. That we are not bound by time or space, if we can just stop holding onto the idea that it has to be tangible in this life. That our loved ones are part of us, no matter what we believe about the afterlife. We are the afterlife.

I know that being grateful for the time our loved one spent with us is a key to enjoying the holidays even though we miss his presence. To have gratitude for ourselves, to be grateful for the depth of our sorrow as a measure of the depth of our love. Thank goodness, we can love and hurt deeply.

In the midst of those terrible days after my son passed, when my soul felt as though it had left my body, I was too angry to pray. I asked others to pray for me. I attended Thanksgiving at Christ in the Desert Monastery so that I could be immersed in silence yet be in company; I could not handle a cheerful meal with friends. As I was leaving, I told the guest master I was grateful to be with the monks because I was unable to pray; I was too angry at God. He answered me, “I would be, too.” and a huge weight fell off me. I realized that my anger was natural. But in the midst of the most excruciating turmoil—why had I failed my son, why had God failed me—I knew there was a gift. In complete darkness and not knowing how I would survive the pain, I believed I would find a gift. I had no idea what it was but I knew it was there. I had seen it when my partner died: the incredible release of creative energy when I no longer was under the cloud of his depression and no longer anxious that he might carry out his threats of suicide, how friends mourned with me, how I knew how to hold sacred silence at the altar we created, to weep with abandon and to laugh as we shared stories. I inherited some of his qualities: the ability to laugh at myself, to dance not caring if I had a partner, to be silly and gregarious and inclusive and spontaneous. I was not alone in my mourning.

These gifts would come to me after Sam’s death as well. Fund raisers to compensate for time off work, prayers and vigils, the moment of complete silence in the circle at one, friends showing up to help scatter his ashes in the Chama, healing touch received at the Women’s Moon Lodge, the wonderful counselor at The Center for Grief, Loss and Transition, the ability to weep during the service at Unity, the poems that came, performances during Día de los Muertos in Mexico, the solace of grandchildren, and more.

But what I want to say here is that Thanksgiving is a time to say thanks, to grandchildren who fill my heart with joy, to friends who invite me to share the meal, to light-bearers who light the path before us, to poets who nourish my soul, to many who hold me in their hearts. But especially I want to acknowledge those of you who have walked this path. Those who have lost someone and mourn in waves that rise and fall, as we hold those precious memories close and admit we miss our loved ones. It is just not the same without them. We will never get over it, but our lives will move on.

For the first couple of years after Sam passed, there was often an empty seat beside me at meditations, prayer circles, poetry readings, concerts, places both crowded with an audience and intimate with a small circle. Yet the seat next to me…empty. The last time I noticed this was at David Whyte’s event at Islandwood which happened to be during Día de los Muertos. The packed room and the empty seat. I did not want that seat taken, although I had decided not to share my loss with the strangers beside me that week-end. I would leave my ghosts, my sadness, at home, I thought. Concentrate on joy and inspiration and hope.

This year, we created an altar to hold the photos and names of those we have lost. We drank a toast and shared what we received from them. Never will I feel we had enough time or that I have said enough words. If you do hear me, know that I love you beyond this lifetime and you are part of me forever.

Thursday, October 29, 2015


I am standing at a semi-enclosed bus shelter on Hennepin Ave, one of the main streets running through downtown Minneapolis. It is a grey, chilly morning, with scattered rain that promises to become snow by evening. The heat lamps are already activated, it just takes a push of the button. I have at least five minutes to wait for my connecting bus and the wind had added an uncomfortable degree of chill. However, in the shelter are three “dudes” and the immediate thought flashes through my mind: Do I want to put up with them at ten o’clock in the morning? Music blares from someone’s device and smoke is exhaled. In a moment I realize it is from a joint. One has pants sagging below his butt and I can see his blue underwear. He has long braids and a scruffy bears and is attractive —until he spits in a corner. One wears a hooded sweatshirt that covers most of his face, the other is turned away in a puffy coat and high top turquoise blue sneakers with the laces undone. I try not to let my dismay show on my face, as I cringe at their language. Fortunately after the joint is smoked and three more spits are expelled, they move on.

The day before, I was on the bus with my four year old grandson who loves to ride in the back of the bus. The back was occupied by a young man whose face I never saw although his words were loud and clear. Before I could convince my grandson to move up to another seat, we were treated to a diatribe where every other word was  f****k, or mother***er, or things like “and that m***r, he can lick my d****" and the clincher. “I gotta back to my f*** crib to change. I ain’t never gonna make it in time. I on to Bible class and shit.”

I ride the bus because I don’t drive. Until the past ten years, mostly I lived in cities where bus transportation was easy and affordable, or had partners who drove, or rode a bike. I have struggled to make riding the bus a spiritual practice, blessing passengers, repeating mantras or prayers (My favorite one is "Jesus Christ have mercy on me.") and remembering that I am riding often with the poor and humble. I overhear conversations in Spanish and try to translate, I smile at children, I send waves of sympathy to those in wheelchairs, those who are obviously homeless, those who are talking to themselves, broken, sorrowing, angry, faded people who share their distress in their voices, either on cell phones or to others who may or may not be listening and responding. But sometimes I am just weary. Sometimes I put my nose in a book and try to ignore the atmosphere in the bus. 

Occasionally someone engages me in conversation, occasionally there is laughter and good cheer that is not loud bursts of giggles from teens in the back or a drunk who is beside himself with commentary of contemporary life.

I wait for buses in all sorts of weather. I have learned to wear layers and the locations of heat lamps and shelters. I know, for example, that I can take the number 6 to a shelter to wait for number 11, and that the light rail may take longer than the express but it is more comfortable, despite the passengers who put their feet up, despite the signs posted asking them not to. Even here, I have had a drunk behind me swearing and pontificating. When I moved up to another section of the car, he did, too, although still just behind me. Sigh. Then it’s time for patience, mantras, or occasionally, getting off before my stop and waiting for the next bus.

It’s the face of humanity. All of us. It is a ride through fancy neighborhoods and poor, through strip malls and around lakes, past cafes and shoppers and crammed with people dressed in purple on their way to a football game. It is someone who needs a hand, someone who has a heavy backpack and heavy load and a day to kill before the shelter opens to serve a meal. It is kids and their slang and old people unbending out of a seat in slow motion. 

This morning I didn’t want to be stuck waiting in that shelter and I also wondered if I should say anything. Should I point out the rudeness, the unawareness? Perhaps a teaching moment? But I was silent. Not out of fear as much as the feeling of pointlessness. I can just hear their sarcastic response, "That old lady! Thinking she can tell us what to do!" But I have also experienced a young man apologizing to me for his cursing. I have had people give up their seats for me and bus drivers wishing me a good day and people asking what book I am reading and the good natured patience when the light rail route was blocked due to a car accident and it took 3 hours to make an hour trip. 

I am stuck on the bus, for now, although my dream is of a chauffeur. As I run out to the bus stop yet again, I think of how riding the bus had enabled me to do more with a limited income (my rides are 75 cents except for rush hour plus two 1/2 hour transfer time.) and I try to remember: there is a blessing here, if I will just pause to find it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Writing Memoir: Reflection and Take Away

When I wrote my memoir Flowers in the Wind, I wanted to document the things that had happened, the memories, before they faded but I wrote the way a writer of fiction would write. I wanted the reader to be invested enough to want to find out what happened to me and I hoped the reader would see himself or herself in the choices I made. As I approached publishers with the first chapters, it became evident that not including my reflections made the story read as a novel instead of a memoir.

The reason people read memoir is to connect deeply with someone they either admire or identify with, to gain insight into their own lives. But the memoirs that really touch people’s hearts are the ones in which readers not only imagine themselves in that person’s shoes, but can be uplifted, inspired, provoked, and connected to a universal truth. In which their hearts are pierced by the honesty and courage of the story-teller.

I wanted readers to come to their own conclusions but my writer friends told me that if I wanted the book to be read that way, I should write it as a novel. Now, I have nothing against writing novels, I have written four, but for this particular project, it would mean removing huge sections of the book. It would need tighter pacing. There was a natural and accurate rhythm of feeling lost and lonely, allowing decisions that I didn’t agree with to be made for me, then rebelling and leaving, followed by returning to where I felt accepted and loved. This might make it in a novel from the 19th century but not the 21st, sad to say.

I had taken out all of my moments of self-reflection and now I had to put them back in. When I worked with an editor, I also learned that I had to explain things more specifically. That someone who had never lived with our philosophy wouldn’t understand why certain choices were made. I could not assume my readers would "get" it simply by describing events as they happened.

The difference between reflection and take away is that reflection is a moment of inner musing to make sense of the experience but the take-away is a moment of connection with the reader, where you offer something that speaks heart to heart. Brooke Warner writes, “If you’re a reader of memoir and you’ve experienced a really good takeaway, you’ll recognize these moments as the ones where you experienced a chill, a deep level of connection, or when you needed to put the book down for a second to sink into the powerful truth the author has just revealed.”

Both reflection and take away must be interwoven through-out, little jewels of insight embedded in the text.  My editor suggested that I consider the theme of each chapter as well as the overarching theme of the entire book, a thread that runs consistently throughout, while each chapter may have slightly varied undertones. My memoir is the story of how I lived communally for ten years. We took in the homeless and traveled worldwide by hitch-hiking. But as we succumbed to the manipulations of one powerful and charismatic man, things began to unravel. My major theme is how I lost my identity in order to fit in and how I gained it back. The minor themes include the challenges of single mothering, desire for love, manipulation and abuse by a powerful man, traveling by faith and hoping to become a worthy disciple of Jesus, the desire to serve the less fortunate. The universal truth is that we all want to belong, to feel welcomed, to come home. This journey is harder if we are artistic, social rebels, pioneers, peace-niks, visionaries, and have a strong desire for social justice and true equality. We often give up parts of ourselves, sometimes our whole selves, our freedom, our money, our voice, our conscience, our beliefs, to fit in, to be part of, rather than demanding that the group change to meet our ideals or to leave the shelter of the group to go it alone. Reclaiming ourselves is essential to move forward after a severe and devastating loss when we no longer fit or are expelled or can’t put up with the inconsistencies any longer. For me, the life I choose was meant to be my life for the rest of my life.

This section of my memoir takes place when one of the “sisters” and I and our children have been sent off after being told that we were not disciplined enough to live with the group. I was seven months pregnant at the time and had a eighteen month-old son. I was determined to improve in order to return to the fold but was mostly consumed with finding places to stay. We ended up at my sister/friend’s family home while I gave birth, then I was invited to return to the group in Santa Fe.

 Snow started to fall as we pulled in to the Santa Fe Greyhound Bus station. Diane answered the phone and said someone would come to fetch me. I burst into tears when I saw Brett coming through the door. My entire body trembled with relief as we greeted each other with a warm embrace. I shoved the box into a locker. He swung Yoan up onto his shoulders, I tucked Ezekiel into my arms and we set off for the hostel.
 The familiar atmosphere of homeless men sitting around the TV while soup bubbled on the stove. A hot cup of coffee served by Tiffany with a gracious smile. Hugs and exclamations over the newborn—being welcomed the way a guest is welcomed. The insecurity flared up immediately. As sharp as that IV needle driven into my arm. How could I have ever thought I could fit in here?
The next day Russell escorted me to the other house, the private house where Ben and Marian stayed with its atmosphere of study and contemplation. I was an outsider. My room was in the basement, dark and hidden away. Yoan was expected to sit still through the morning readings rather than go off to play. All the children sat with us, including the youngest. I had never forced Yoan to do anything in his life. He wailed and squirmed. I took him outside and scolded him, disrupting the somber atmosphere.

My first conversation with Ben included being chastised for how many things I had acquired, how we were dressed (Yoan in corduroy overalls rather than jeans) and my utter lack of discipline.…I was scoured by Ben Oren from top to bottom. The clothes I wore (pastels), my relationship with Cristopher (all sweet, no substance), and my attitudes (spoiled princess), my lack of understanding and respect for my elders, my lack of obedience and devotion. Ben repeated his litany of my personality. “You are a beautiful girl but you have cotton candy in your head. It’s probably not your fault but you have to have to change. You are vain and presumptuous and that has to change.”

“But what can I do?” I wailed.

His face folded into a severe frown but Marian stepped in.

“Stephanie and Anna have just sent us a postcard from Missoula where they have been helping out at a place that feeds people. They just rented an apartment and want someone to come up there. You can leave tomorrow if you want.”

I slowly stood up, relieved that I had somewhere to go. Ben turned away. “Thank you,” he said sarcastically. I had no gratitude for what they were doing for me, pointing out the changes I needed to make. I was too hurt and humiliated.

I stayed at the hostel for the next two days while an attempt was made to raise bus fare. I trudged through slushy piles of snow, but I had used all my options in the fall. Finally Diane informed me that Salvadore would hitch-hike with me. It was the dead of winter and ...Ezekiel was three weeks old. My faith was being tested and I did not falter. By placing myself and my children in God’s Hands, I would be escorted every step of the way to safety. The only way to go was forward. Toward Montana.
  Looking back, I can’t believe I didn’t protest or take my kids and get out of there. The heart truly makes no sense. Was I holding on to those moments when I felt connected, bonded, or was it the promise held out to us that we would become pure of heart and able to make miracles? Was it strength or exhaustion? No one ever shared their doubts or worries with me, but people would leave, usually quietly. The immediacy of finding rent and cooking and cleaning and caring for children, or those moments of euphoric companionship took away our ability to discern whether or not the Scriptures being poured over us every morning were truly transforming us into Christ-like disciples capable of healing or saving souls. We wanted to be “good servants worthy of our reward” and “inherit the Kingdom prepared for us.” Of course we did. I did.

I don’t know if this take away, that strong desire to be good while never being quite good enough, is one that will pierce the hearts of my readers. But every woman who has suffered demeaning abuse, every man who has put up with humiliation at the hand of a boss, will recognize that sometimes we ignore our inner knowing for the hope of acceptance, love, and redemption. It would take more than a scolding about the pastels I was wearing to wake me up to the dangerous power of control and condescension.

As writers, we must remember that we are telling a story as a way to build a bridge between us and the reader, one that is both tender and sturdy, fragile and invincible: the thread between our hearts.