As I sit on the terrace of my room at the Elk Cove Inn, I scan the surf with binoculars, searching for seals and whales and otters. The kelp plays cruel tricks on me, bobbing up from the waves like whiskered heads, and my heart surges with excitement. I could say I’ve been disappointed a dozen times this week, but that wouldn’t be close to the truth. The truth is there are too many distractions to feel shortchanged, too much evidence of beauty. Just look at all I’ve found:
A twig of pink kelp, which reminds me of ginger…
…and this sea grass, of sorts, which would nicely garnish a salad.
Then there’s this peculiar tangle of seaweed, which has captured a feather…
…and me in the late afternoon. (The sun goes down around five o’clock, always before I’m ready.)
Not everything I find is delectable, but it all makes me curious. What happened to this Cassin’s auklet, I want to know. It no longer has a head.
And here’s a photo of a kelp cemetery. Yesterday I walked boldly through it, wondering if the Sea Gods would strike me dead.
And then I realized That’s not going to happen – look at this! They’ve gifted me with a stone.
I skimmed the small flat rock across a lingering wave, and it bounced thirteen or fourteen times. All right, ten times. Okay, it bounced twice, but it felt like more, given my grateful spirit.
A few days ago, after first arriving, I walked across the street to the grocery/deli to pick up a sandwich for lunch. I met Terri (the best sandwich maker ever!) and Sean there. It turns out Sean and his wife bought the store from its former owner roughly six weeks ago. I’m positive they’re going to make it.
This is my fifth trip to Elk. Always, Steve has come with me, but this time I asked to go alone. To get some writing done. I’ve worked hard each morning, hunkering in the breakfast room, with its excellent view of the sea. After five hours or so, when I can no longer straighten my back, I pack up my laptop and go for a walk, stretching the bones in my body.
On Tuesday I ventured forth to the Greenwood/Elk Visitor Center, where I met docent Elaine and her friend Prue. Elaine (on the right) is also a seasonal aide for the California State Park system. We talked about Elk’s history, and when we were done, I took a few notes about trees. Here’s an interesting factoid: The Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is the world’s tallest tree, growing to heights of more than two hundred feet. It can have a diameter of twenty feet or more, and weigh over 400 tons. If you were a logger in the 1800s, you would have cut the tree by hand, using only axes, wedges, and two-handled saws. And it would have taken a week to get it done.
Elaine also told me that Elk’s old post office closed in 1993. When they built the new post office across the street, it was as though someone said, “Okay, let’s go,” and then closed the door and locked it. Everything remains just as it was, including the circulars and flyers.
Here’s Box # 53. The Year of the Snake. If you were born in ‘53, you prefer a peaceful life, and don’t like a noisy environment. Which is why you should come to Elk.
If you stay at the Inn, Patty and Mary, the innkeepers on duty during my stay, will take terrific care of you, feeding you a breakfast that will make you weep with love. And if you need a massage to get through your next two chapters, Felicity is your girl.
Had a great time on Thursday, spending the day in Woodland and speaking about THE BRIDGE AT VALENTINE to four fabulous groups, starting with English students at Woodland High. I was a little nervous, as my own teens left home years ago and I’m rusty talking to anyone between the ages of two and 34. But these kids were smart and respectful and asked tons of great questions, and I loved spending time with them.
At noon I attended a luncheon at Woodland Community College, where a group of fine men and women gathered to hear about the book, and then it was off to Pioneer High School, where the students pictured above also behaved beautifully. When did kids get so smart? I was blown away by the sophistication of their questions – “What tense do you prefer to write in?” and “Why did you dedicate your book to Steve?” I told them a bit about my background – how I met Steve during my sophomore year in high school (I was their age!), and how he’s been my trusted reader for 41 years now. If that blew them away, they were gracious about it, and generous, too: when I asked if I could take a picture of them for my blog, they readily agreed, although it turned out I couldn’t photograph their faces without permission from their parents. (Mr. Uebner had the brilliant idea to take the pic from the back of the room.) I wish you could see their smiles – happiness abounds.
That evening I met with my last group at Woodland Public Library, and then headed for home. It was a terrific day all around, and I’m enormously grateful to Woodland Reads (a community program based on Seattle’s One Book One City) for selecting my novel as its 2014 book, and to Meg Stallard, who served as chief organizer and chauffeur. I also appreciated Wayne Ginsberg’s assistance with publicity. Thank you, Woodland Reads Team, and the city of Woodland – can’t wait to visit again!
So honored to announce that my latest short story, “The Volunteer,” is appearing in the Fall 2014 edition of Crossborder, the literary journal of Leapfrog Press and Guernica Editions.
Here’s the opening paragraph:
Each summer, Claire and her son Quinn drove from Berkeley to the northern Rockies, where they pitched a tent in Dulcet National Park, and camped three months for free. In exchange for the campsite, they worked as volunteers, cleaning restrooms, picking up trash, and grooming hiking trails. At the end of their shifts, when the sun drifted low in the crystalline sky, they wandered the banks of the Dulcet River, rods and nets in hand. It was all fly-fishing — catch-and-release — and Quinn was a natural, sometimes hooking up to six rainbow trout, while Claire’s line tangled on an out-stretched willow, then snapped and lost its fly. Quinn had the rhythm, the musicality to cast, mend, point, and set, and the ability to distinguish the nuances of the water: the little blurp a cutthroat made when it slowly surfaced for air, or the almost silent spin of a whirlpool as it gathered behind a boulder. Once he caught his fish, he reeled it in and netted it, deftly slipping the hook from the trout’s mouth before gently letting it go.
Special thanks to Rebecca Schwab for her kind and generous compliments, and to Leapfrog, for hosting its annual fiction competition. My friend Thom Atkinson placed as a finalist in Leapfrog’s 2014 Fiction Contest with his novel TIKI MAN; as it happens, Thom was in my workshop at Tomales Bay this past week, where we worked with Robert Boswell. Thom and I hadn’t met before, so it was a fun coincidence!
There are eleven of us in the class, including me, and these are our manuscripts. Can’t wait to dive in, and discover through story all that is important and meaningful and fun to my fellow workshop-mates. And I’m wondering, of course, what nugget Mr. Boswell will impart, who will listen and who will ignore, and what I’ll bring home from the experience. I expect a great deal, and am confident he will not disappoint.
So pleased and proud to announce that Woodland Reads has chosen my first novel, THE BRIDGE AT VALENTINE, as its 2014 community book.
Come to Woodland on October 30 and give us a listen! Books available for purchase at The Gifted Penguin (716 Main Street, Woodland; Terry’s Hallmark, at 375 W. Main, Woodland; and The Avid Reader, in Davis).
It happens every so often that on a day when I most need to see, or read, or hear something heartwarming, I’m given a gift that reaffirms my faith in man.
Steve and I were in Honolulu recently, where Steve and seven of his friends were preparing to tackle the Waikiki Rough Water Swim – a 2.4 mile race with over 900 competitors. The day before, on August 31, I had gone down to the beach around 10 a.m., while Steve stayed behind in the room, wrapping up a project for one of his clients. (He planned to join me later.) Not long after hopping into the water, I noticed a young man – slight, but athletic-looking, in dark swim trunks – and his small black dog; they too were heading for the water. The dog led the way, dragging a long red leash. Once in the ocean, the man soon passed the dog, swimming leisurely, allowing the dog to catch up. Every once in a while the dog shook its head, bothered, I guessed, by water in its ears.
The man swam toward the wharf, and then cut across the reef and angled back toward the beach – it seemed a long way to go. When the man reached shallow water, he stopped swimming, stood, and took the dog into his arms, so that the dog faced him, resting its paws on the man’s shoulders. In that moment I knew this was a good man; that he loved his dog, and his dog loved him. After a few minutes the man released his pup, and they returned to their spot on the beach. The man then made a sweeping motion with one hand, and the dog sat. Once he himself was situated on his towel, the man offered the dog a snack and a drink of water; afterward, the dog rolled in the sand and kicked up its legs. A testament to happiness.
I watched all of this from a distance of 50 yards, wanting to get out of the water and compliment the man, but hesitating. My inner voice said, “Don’t do it, Renee, he’ll think you’re a nut-job…or worse yet, a stalker.” But the whole point of A YEAR IN COMPLIMENTS is to go out of my way to say something nice to someone who deserves recognition – and if anyone deserved a compliment, it was this man and his sweet black dog. So I got out of the water.
“Excuse me, sir. May I speak to you a moment?”
Startled, he blinked and sat up. “Yes?”
When I kneeled to speak to him, the dog scooted over. I let her smell my hand, and then patted her, and introduced myself to the man, telling him about my blog*, and how I’d watched him with his dog. I told him how much his kindness had touched me, and he smiled, relaxing, telling me the dog’s name was Hime – Japanese for princess. She was a Lab/pit rescue, he said. He got her when she was around one, although he wasn’t sure of her age, since she wasn’t microchipped. He’d had her for six years.
“She was afraid of everything when I first brought her home – every little sound.”
He nodded. “She had a lot of scars.”
I rubbed Hime’s belly while she stood next to me, and she sneaked a lick to my mouth. “What’s your name?” I asked the man. He said it was Masa, and that he lived in town. He worked as a sushi chef.
Not wanting to take up more of his time, I told him I’d let him go. We shook hands, and after I left, I looked back, seeing that Masa’s ball cap now sat on Hime’s head, and that Masa was talking to her.
*I didn’t have my smart phone with me that morning; hence, the “stick” reproduction, above.
Today’s compliment goes to Caroline Leavitt, The New York Times bestselling author of IS THIS TOMORROW, PICTURES OF YOU, AND CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD. Caroline is a generous friend to writers, hosting us on her blog, CarolineLeavittville, and saying lovely things about us, and our books. When my first novel, THE BRIDGE AT VALENTINE, hit the stands in 2010, she called it an “…imaginative and fiercely moving new debut,” and then followed the review with a Q&A on her blog. When my second novel, THE PLUME HUNTER, came out in 2011, she posted a Q&A about that book, too, as she has done for hundreds of authors, never once balking or worrying that there are only so many compliments to go around.
If you know Caroline, and have followed her on Facebook or Twitter, or through her books, you know she’s not only generous, but supremely talented – one of her essays landed in Modern Love, which is on every writer’s wish list. (Many are called; few are chosen.) She’s also a lover of boots and turtles and The Boy (her son), as well as movies, Hoboken, and her longtime partner-in-crime. Have I said she’s a terrific person?
If you don’t know her, introduce yourself. Check out her website and her blog, and read her novels – but support her, please – because as my dad says, she’s one of the good ones.
Over the years, I’ve picked up some pretty great writing tips from various writers and workshop teachers. Here’s a sampling of what I’ve learned:
- From Larry McMurtry, the importance of creating compelling characters
- From Truman Capote, the importance of providing compelling narrative
- From Ron Carlson and Wallace Stegner, the importance of a compelling setting
- From Frank McCourt, the importance of voice (think: Angela’s Ashes)
- From Will Allison, the importance of self-awareness (on the part of your protagonist)
- From Ron Carlson, the importance of infusing your story with work
- From Robert Olen Butler, the importance of infusing your story with yearning
- From Lynn Freed, the importance of appreciating that characters don’t always need to respond to one another in the midst of dialog (How are you? Fine. How are you? Blah, blah, blah…)
- From Annie Proulx: the importance of telling the story you most want to tell
These last two months, I’ve learned something new. I’ve been working with eight other writers in a workshop taught by Jodi Angel, author of YOU ONLY GET LETTERS FROM JAIL, and I’ve learned that I’m not only capable of writing in first and second person (I’ve never written in anything but third), but in a genre I’d never considered: science fiction. I’ve also learned that I can create entire (if compact) stories based on prompts (“windows,” as Jodi calls them), and that in attempting to present work that is sincere and polished, I have several pieces of flash-fiction that, after some minor revision, I’ll be able to submit and publish. Mostly, though, I’ve learned to push myself harder than I ever thought I could, and this has come entirely at Jodi’s urging.
And so today I compliment Jodi Angel, the only workshop leader who’s ever asked me to go beyond my norm, my comfort zone, my stuck-and-staid self so that I might become not only a better writer, but a truer version of myself. Thanks, Jodi – I’m looking forward to getting to it.
This is Steve, just after he started his first year of college. The kitten he’s cradling is the offspring of a feral female, and I had to coerce him to hold it; cats are not his thing. That said, he was good to that kitten, gently coaxing it from its hiding spot under the house so I could hold it too. That’s one of the reasons I love him.
We met when we were fifteen, during our sophomore year in high school. Steve came to Rio Americano as a transfer student from San Jose, and I remember well the first time I saw him. I was sitting at a Formica table in the cafeteria with a passel of girls, and he and Bob Daneke walked up to us, lunch trays in hand. Bob introduced Steve, and Steve and I looked at each other, glued in that proverbial eye lock that foreshadows fireworks and a soundtrack. But we didn’t have any classes together and no mutual friends, so we didn’t speak, or say “hi” in the hall, or do any of the things that young adults do when they’re attracted to one another.
Then one night we showed up at the same party. Kids were drinking and dancing and swimming and smoking, but we stood apart from them, cautiously assessing the goings-on. Somehow we found ourselves alone in a cabana, a brightly lit room with sliding glass doors. We stood next to a counter with a dead telephone, too shy to speak to each other. A good minute passed, and then Steve picked up the phone’s receiver, said, “Hello?” and then handed it to me. “It’s for you,” he said – the most brilliant come-on ever. I laughed, and he smiled, and as soon as he got his driver’s license, he asked me out on a date. (A separate story that involves French fries, coffee, and a pancake house called Sambo’s.)
We’ve been together for forty-six years, and today, on Steve’s sixty-first birthday, I want to compliment him on his wits and his wisdom, his ethics and morals and courage – all the things that make him the person I so love.
Happy birthday, Steve.
Just before leaving the house to help Steve at his office this morning, I received a call from my neighbor Patrice. Someone had hit a hawk with a car near our pasture, and she wondered if we could check on the bird and perhaps pick it up. Steve wasn’t home, so I hopped into the car to have a look-see. Turns out a woman driving by had seen the hawk flailing, and had pulled over, wanting to assist. I saw her standing at the side of the road, and told her I would run home and grab a box, hoping we could load up the bird together. We scooped him up in short order, and when I got home, I took this photo. This guy is mottled and looks pretty small, so I’m guessing it’s a juvenile red-shouldered hawk, since our neighbor Linda has a red-shouldered hawk nest in her front yard. I’m also guessing he’s got a broken wing, and possibly a broken leg, as he can’t fly and won’t put his foot down. (It’s a sad fact that only about 10 percent of young birds make it through their first year.)
As it happens, my neighbor Rhonda works as a volunteer at Gold Country Wildlife Rescue, maybe six miles from the house. I called her and asked if I could bring the bird in, and she said, “Yes, absolutely.” Gold Country is a non-profit, volunteer organization dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of injured, sick, and orphaned wildlife, and has served the local community, at no charge, for over 20 years. That’s pretty darned impressive, so today I want to compliment the staff and volunteers, and tell them how appreciative we are as a community that they’re working hard to help wildlife.
If you’re an animal lover (and I bet you are), I hope you’ll consider donating a couple of dollars to Gold Country Rescue. Like every non-profit they need your help, and you can send a check (info here) or donate through PayPal. Red-shouldered hawks will thank you!