Sunday, March 30, 2008

Chapter Five: "Switch" -- To Be or Not to Be, A Sofa Story

To read the novel Switch!! in its entirety, go to:

By Claudia Ricci

I sit here on an orange, gold and white striped sofa in a coffee shop called Dottie’s, writing down the slop that my shrink thinks I’ve got to write down in order to heal.

“Try it, Gina. Just get it all out there, and put it down on paper,” she advised. She being the woman I will call Elizabeth. "There's research that shows that if you write it out, what's troubling you, and the emotions, then your health may improve.”

My eyes narrow. “But will I feel better?” I whisper. “Less depressed? Less...jumpy?”

She lifts her shoulders slightly, and then lets them drop. “I can’t promise that,” she says, “but I suspect you will find that releasing your feelings will end up making you more calm.”

That’s what I like about Elizabeth. She doesn’t lie, or flinch, or stretch or avoid or even try to skirt the truth.

That’s why I liked her that first day I met her. The day I came to her some weeks ago when I was so depressed that I was contemplating swallowing a whole bottle of Ativan. Elizabeth listened very patiently that day, while taking a few notes on a legal pad. Finally, she looked up. Her face was as calm as the sea on a quiet day.

“Well, Gina,” she began, and here she gently tapped her pencil eraser against the legal pad. “You can do that, swallow all those pills. But you can also realize that you have other choices.”

That was a good thing to say. That was an important thing to hear.

That was the day I stopped thinking about swallowing the Ativan.

And somehow, I felt a kind of switch go on. I’m still not sure exactly how or why. Just like, I’m not exactly sure how or why I jump back in time.

So here I am at Dottie's on the orange, gold and white striped couch. It is a Tuesday afternoon in March of 2008 and I have come here to do exactly what Elizabeth suggested. I take out my pad and pen and about 4:30, I begin to write. I write and I write and I write about what’s bothering me. And I write some more. And when I look up and glance out the window I notice, of all things, my dentist crossing the street right in front of me. How odd, to see my dentist. He actually smiles and waves.

I wave back to him and then I return to the writing and this thought occurs to me: I might never stop writing. And that makes me feel like I might start crying. And that makes me scared that perhaps if I do start crying, I might never stop.

Then I begin to wonder this: maybe I am just not right in the head. Maybe I am, as I suggested in my phone call to Sandra in California, just plain insane. Maybe no amount of writing will help me deal with the troubling events of the last year or so. I wonder how it can possibly be helping me to sit here and write about something that is causing me so much pain. How can it be helping me to write down things that leave me feeling like I have live wires of electricity surging hot and crackling through my veins?

Suddenly, coming over the sound system in the coffee shop I hear an old Beatles’ tune: “Let it be, let it be, whisper words of wisdom, let it be...”

And suddenly I am writing, “Oh Dear God, that’s what I need to do, LET IT BE. LET IT
Be. Let it be GONE. Let it GO. All of it.” And then I practically call out in the coffee shop. “But I can’t!!!! I can’t let it go. All of it is driving me crazy. All I want to know is why did he have to hurt me so badly? Why did he have to betray me? And why did it –- the suffering, the sadness -- have to go on for such a long time? Why is it still going on?”

And one more thing, while I’m yelling, I ask no one in particular: “When will it all just fade away?”

That’s when the song switches, I SWEAR THIS IS TRUE, and the next song to come over the speakers is “Only love can break your heart….”

At that moment I begin to shake. My arms and legs go bananas, and I sit there on the old orange and gold and white striped couch just...shaking. I pick up my cell phone and dial Sandra on her direct line at Ibex in San Jose. By the grace of God, she is there. I start to cry, and I shake even worse, and God bless her, she listens. She tries to talk me down. She asks me to read some of what I’ve written out loud to her over the phone. And I do that, and it feels good, I need to say the words out loud. And then, I reach into my purse and yes, I pop an Ativan beneath my tongue. But I pop just one.

As the pill starts to give me a bit of relief, I think to myself, if I could, I would make all of this pain go away. I would do that by going back in time, rewriting history. I would revise the story of me and David. I would rewrite it –- drastically -- so that nothing awful ever came to pass between us. I would erase the fact that for so many years of our marriage, I didn’t love him the way I should have. I would erase the fact that last year, he thought he’d found somebody else who would. In the revised story, I would love him just the way I should have. In the revised story, I would keep myself from hurting him. And I would keep him from hurting me.

I certainly wouldn’t end up sitting here in this coffee shop, sobbing. I wouldn’t write all the slop that I have been writing for the past hour or so. And I wouldn’t sit in this goddamn prison chained by the leg, either. I wouldn’t be accused of killing my cousin Antonie, and I wouldn’t face hanging by a rope. Nor would I have this festering sore crawling up my leg, the skin more red and puffy every day, the pain slowly rising, threatening to overtake my kneecap.

No. Instead, I would...just switch:

To the courtyard behind the convent. The courtyard tiled in white and turquoise blue -- the colors of the Pacific Ocean -- the tiles cracked in so many places. The cracks black and snaking all around the fountain, which at this time of year, is dry.

The sun beats down on me and Sister Theresa. We came out here to snap beans for dinner a little while ago, and when we finished the beans, we never went back inside. We sit here scattering some stale bread crumbs for the birds. We sit in silence, with Theresa occasionally humming or whistling. We just let ourselves feel the sun on our faces, bound as they are in the tight white wimples. We feel a gentle wind on our cheeks. We stare up to the hillside behind the convent. The hillside is the color of a golden lion’s coat, and on top sits the sprawling live oak where Theresa and I often go and take a blanket and some fruit for late afternoon “picnics.”
We sit on the blanket and I read to her from my diary and often, she tries to give me advice about what to do about my cousin, Antonie.

I close my eyes now and inhale and the smell of sage is everywhere. Ah, but the California sun is warm and so reassuring. There are bees swarming our faces. A couple of grey and white cats (one is Jonah, and the other, honest to God, is called Catechism!) are sprawled at our feet. Theresa lets loose with a sharp whistle to attract the hens, and soon they are bobbling over to her side, cackling their hearts out. She reaches into the pocket of her habit and pulls out some hard corn and scatters it for the pecking chickens.

Despite the heat, Theresa and I are dressed in black, our wool habits going head to toe.

And yes, if I could, I would go back

There. But then, of course,

I already have.

Friday, March 28, 2008

"Charles Dickens Did It, So Why Can't We?"

By Renee Geel

Serial novels were big in Charles Dickens' day; and he and others like Wilkie Collins did exceedingly well with the format, hooking Victorian readers with weekly installments that ended in cliffhangers. The serial novel was born out of necessity, or pragmatics. In order to avoid the high English tax on newspapers, American publishers began using large sheets of paper, giving them more room for copy -- room that needed to be filled.

Enter, the serial novel.

Writers geared their novels toward a Victorian Era public hungering for social betterment. The audience for the serial novelists’ work was drawn to the notion that people could better themselves, and ostensibly this improvement -- on an individual and societal level -- was guided by the stories themselves. (Yes, like so many popular fiction writers today, the authors back then devised their plots according to popular social desires and reading tastes.)

The Victorian Era was no Digital Age. The 19th century pace of living, and reading, was vastly slower than today. People had patience and were willing to take the time to read one novel over a period of years -– it sometime took that long to read one of Dickens’ novels, say The Pickwick Papers, in weekly installments. So here we are 150 plus years later, living in a lightning-paced world, with people racing to get the latest-breaking information (and gossip) off YouTube or CNN or whatever other site they can get it. The quicker the better. But don’t lose sight of the fact that the Victorians were also living in the Industrial Age, with its increasing production and aspiration. The corseted and socially-conscious Victorian Era was a waltz of patience and ambition.

So, with these stark differences between modern and Victorian readers and societies, the question arises: Why would a blog in 2008 attempt to copy the Victorian serial novel format? It seems a little crazy, and even contradictory to the times, enmeshed as we are today in our turbocharged, point-and-click world.

Or is it? We would welcome your input on this matter, as we at MyStoryLives began first and foremost as a “community space” for writers. We are now actively recruiting writers of “serialized” novels. Know anyone? How about you?

Can we count on our readers to pace themselves to a book delivered in slices, say two or three times per week? If reader hits are any indication, then the time has definitely come for the novel-by-blog. This past couple of weeks, as Switch!! has made its debut on the screen here, readership – or at least reader hits-- have gone off the charts! We are now getting readers at a rate approaching 5,000 a month. We had no idea the response would be this strong.

In a rare bit of synchronicity, NPR’s “Morning Edition” last week reported that book publisher Harper Collins is now offering snippets (kind of a preview peek) of several of its books. These enticements, offered free at the Harper Collins’ site, are supposed to lure readers to buy books. But what if at MyStoryLives, you could read the whole book -– more along the lines of a serial novel -– but at a faster pace than Dickens’ weekly installments?

Perhaps we at MyStoryLives are riding the crest of the next wave of literary publication, evolving with the latest in publishing, delivering readers what they want. Or not? Tell us if you think people are willing to read entire entries on screen. Or have “readers” simply been listening to a bit of the flamenco music and after glancing at the piece, then switching elsewhere? Tell us too if you think people will keep reading. And consider telling your friends about our exciting literary experiment. Please pass the link along.

Our intention, ultimately, is to attract literary agents to the site so that books that might not otherwise be given a chance in this nearly impossible-to-publish climate might interest publishers, since the books will be proven popular, coming as they will with a built-in MyStoryLives readership -- the so-called platform -- that authors need to have in order to sell books today.

The serial novel Switch!! -- with a hook at the end of each installment inviting the reader to go back for more -- borrows heavily on the Victorian serial tradition and assumes reader appetites for a long, slow, literary seduction. Will this trend last long enough to get us through one whole novel or will readership slacken from the initial fevered pace, so that, like so much else in the media these days, Switch!! will be edged out before we even reach the denouement?

We’ll have to wait and see.

Renee Geel, who lives in upstate New York, is completing her first novel and is toying with a serial novel called “Souvenirs of Coney Island.”

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Switch!! Chapter Four, More Renata Dancing

To read the novel Switch!! in its entirety, go to:

As Renata and Antonie reach the halfway point in the long hallway, Renata stops, turns again, and grazing Antonie’s smooth face with her fingertips, she brings the outside of each delicate hand to rest on his black velvet shoulders. For a moment, Renata seems poised, the couple looks ready to dance. But instead they embrace, Renata reaching up, Antonie down, the two pressing their open mouths together.

Renata pulls away.

“That,” she says, swiveling on the point of her toe, proceeding down the white stucco hallway of the elegant Spanish hacienda, “that is to show you I do sometimes need you in the way you think you need me.” Antonie lurches out, tries to grab her, to catch her slight waist, but Renata slips away and laughs. She picks up her ruffles and her pace, so that she is practically running through the hall, so that her cleats make a ragged clatter of metal against the floor. Antonie has the choice he makes without choosing, to chase her to the dining room where she’s danced so many times before.

There, the light is brighter. Hanging from the ceiling is an antique wagon wheel, into which are set thick candles. Today the candles are all lit. The ceiling is braced in dark beams, and the white walls are hung in turquoise and grey wool rugs and the thick trestle table runs almost the length of the immense room. The table is set for two, as it always is, with a wooden plate at each side, and heavy silverware resting on white cloth napkins. In the center of the table are two thick white candles, also lit, and a large shallow wooden bowl full of pure white gardenias. A painted clay plate to one side holds a variety of castanets, each set different, some pairs carved out of ivory, some of carved and painted wood.

Without waiting for a cue, Renata takes up the white ivory castanets, imbedded with abalone, and slips them on her fingers. As she does, she steps effortlessly from the floor to the leather saddle seat of a chair directly to the top of the trestle table, so that as Antonie arrives in the room, she is standing above, adorning the trestle, her muscular calves at work, both arms raised above her head, her feet pounding, already immersed in the rhythms of the dance. The sharp crackle of the castanets alternates with the pounding of her shoes on wood.

Antonie picks up the Spanish guitar leaning against the far wall, and raising one leg to the leather chair, rests the instrument there. Setting one hand to the strings, and the slender fingers of the other hand to the narrow neck of the guitar, he strums, softly at first, but gradually gaining momentum to fit Renata’s pace. She sweeps a tight circle, her brow knotted, her mouth wide. One wrist raised and twisted, she crushes the red satin-edged ruffles of her dress in the other hand, exposing first one and then the other thigh. Antonie eyes the naked leg, then looks down at the guitar, his right fingers moving in a nimble rasgueado across the strings.

Slowly, Renata makes her way the length of the table, working her heels, her hips, all the while her red lips are set firmly in a line. As she approaches the wooden bowl in the center it begins to rattle, to twist, the drumming of her feet setting the bowl, the fragrant gardenias, in a slow tipsy spin.

The flames of the candles thin and flicker as she steps delicately between them, and the bottom-most ruffle of her dress just grazes the lip of hot wax pouring over the top edge of the thick candle. The heavy silver candle holders, ornate and engraved like the door knob and crucifix, canter slightly out toward the edge of the table. Still Renata moves on, slowly, methodically, approaching the end of the long thick table as Antonie brings louder and louder rounds of sound from the guitar. Antonie too moves forward, approaching the table.

As Renata reaches the end, Antonie lays the guitar aside and extends both arms and Renata steps down, knees bent, both legs tucked into the ruffles. Delicately, she collapses into the waiting velvet arms, pushing Antonie’s hat to the floor. From beneath the hat cascades a flood of blue black hair, hair that takes the shape of a thick cloud, a mass of regular waves that form a cloak over the black velvet shoulders.

You could say this about the pair: they share a remarkable resemblance: the same color hair, the same exaggerated mouths, strongly curved lower lips, the same hue in their caramel skin. In a word, they are cousins, and they are sinking into more than one kind of sin there on the floor.

CHAPTER FIVE of Switch!!appears Sunday, March 30, 2008.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Why Would Darren Dopp Do It? Lie for Spitzer, that is...

OK, so we interrupt Switch!! --the nun whodunnit, novel-by-blog -- (SEE BELOW FOR CHAPTER THREE!!!) for this quick question: why did Darren Dopp, Eliot Spitzer's ex-communication aide, decide to take the fall for the ex-Governor last summer? Why do we ask? Because yesterday's New York Times reports that the ex-Governor apparently LIED about his involvement in Troopergate. You don't remember Troopergate? That was the scandal that preceded the prostitution ring, the thing that brought the good, I mean, bad? Governor down, down, down.

Last July, when Spitzer's office was accused of orchestrating a devious (but apparently legal) plot to use the State Police to gather embarrassing information about Joe Bruno (Republican), Spitzer blamed "Troopergate" all on poor old Darren Dopp. Dopp was suspended indefinitely, as in, fired. As in no pay. As in no money to cover the mortgage, etc. etc.

That little dirty trick was supposed to make Troopergate go away. HA!!!

At the time, Spitzer claimed the incident taught him "humility." HA HA HA HA!!! Oh my...So now, thanks to the Times, we get a little closer to the truth: it turns out that Spitzer apparently was so "spitting mad" (Dopp's quote) at his Republican rival, Joe Bruno, that the Guv himself OK'ed and orchestrated Troopergate! (Is anybody really all that surprised?)In the Times' story yesterday, Dopp's wife is quoted as saying that Spitzer repeatedly phoned the Dopp's home last year pushing to know when the embarrassing story about Bruno would appear in the newspaper. Is he for REAL?

But as we get closer to the truth, ah, the truth eludes us once more. This is the question: why did Dopp decide to play fall guy for the ex-Governor's misdeeds? What incredible mind maze made this basically decent political functionary decide to play along? Was he just plain scared of what the big steamroller would do to him? (He'd already taken his income and job away???) Why was he so terrified to be the one to expose Spitzer's lies? I saw a photo of Darren Dopp in the Times yesterday and he seems like such a nice guy. So tell us, Darren, why why why would you lie for this Governor? Maybe you should write a book, or at the very least, a blog entry. Hey HERE's AN IDEA, DARREN: POST IT RIGHT HERE??? :)
Now back to the novel-in-progress, Switch!!, which is all a maze of lies itself :)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Switch!! Chapter Three, Renata Dancing


At this moment, Sister Renata isn’t doing what she should be. Instead of attending to the steaming and starching of altar cloths in the convent laundry, instead of standing at the kitchen sink washing spinach or shaving carrots for Father Crucifer’s soup she is instead standing before the familiar oak chest of drawers undressing, catching an eyeful of herself in the small wooden mirror propped on top. The nun's childlike fingers move in the normal manner, even if they aren’t attending to prayer, even if they aren’t locked around the black onyx rosary beads, even if they aren’t fingering the carved silver surface of the crucifix. Instead, her damp fingers are trembling slightly as they unfasten the three black buttons at the side of her wool skirt and the row of buttons at each of her wrists.

For the long line of buttons at the back of her shirt, she reaches awkwardly behind, elbows askew. If she were at the convent, as well she should be, husky Sister Theresa would be standing behind, whispering warm air into her neck, laughing, assisting her, all the while persisting with one of her ribald jokes about the older, crippled priest, Father Ruby.

But Sister Renata isn’t there, she is here unfastening the long string of rosary beads from the hook at her waist, and then collecting them into a rattling handful that spills over her fist, onto the oak dresser next to the mirror. She lets the skirt and shirt drop limp to the floor, and momentarily she stares at the heap of black wool lying in disarray at her feet, noting with some horror that the habit looks like the discarded garb of a storybook witch. The thought shudders her, but not for long. She steps out of the habit. Bending low, she unties the knotted laces of her blocky black oxfords and she pulls them off one at a time. There she is, she the youthful nun in her soft white underclothes and short black veil, standing in the flow of desert sun streaming through the window, staring at one pale coin of herself reflected in the small round mirror.

Slowly she peels off her heavy black stockings and the white cotton underclothes and finally, she unpins the short black veil and lifts off the starched white headpiece that binds her forehead. The skin beneath the white headpiece is moist. She rubs the creased line above her eyebrows and shakes her hair loose, gathering it through her fingers. The thick waves fall away from her forehead reflecting almost blue in the light. The hair grazes her naked back and clings in bold shiny curves to her shoulders. She is fully disrobed now, completely herself, absent of all habit, and she is sliding open the oak drawer, meeting with some resistance, and the perfume of dry sage rises up, and she is taking from the drawer the satin bag that Antonie sent, and she is unzipping the bag, removing the red dress, shaking out the beloved ruffles, each ruffle edged in black lace and ribbon.

Soon the dress pools on the cool tile floor by her ankles. A pert smile flirts across her lips. She steps through the crinoline that lines the ruffles, the crinoline that scratches at her naked calves and pricks at the tender skin indenting her waist. Snaking the zipper in place up along her hip, she runs her open palm smooth along the satin that clings tightly to the hipbone before it breaks open into unruly ruffle. She reaches beneath the dresser for the patent leather pumps. The underside of the heels are surfaced in well-worn cleats. When the shoes are in place, and the red satin bows are tied, she attends quickly to her face in the mirror, adding two ovals of rouge to her cheeks, and two dark horizons to each eyelid. Finally, with some purpose, and with evidence of some practice, she smears the tube of red lipstick from the top drawer full across her lips accentuating the natural deep pout. Just below the corner of her mouth is a mole, too large to ignore.

The handle of the door rattles behind her. Glancing into the mirror, Renata sees reflected the doorknob, its silver surface engraved in the same style as the crucifix of her rosary. The handle moves frantically against its lock.

“Ready?” The voice hovers low at the crack of the door.

Renata inhales, her flat bosom rising. The top ruffles of the snug dress resist, move only slightly.

“Soon,” she calls back. “Yes…” she glances at herself in the mirror.

Yes, she thinks, Renata is ready for the dance, only -- only she is never quite ready for the dance partner and with this thought of Antonie waiting outside the door, one muscular arm leaning into the frame of the door, the palm of the hand flat against the narrow band of wood, Renata’s eyes close and she smiles slightly and suddenly her hand drops to her right hip. The other arm rises into the air, and she throws her flood of hair back.

Her head twisted to the right, her neck high, her eyes the cocked slits of a cat, her bottom lip curled, she turns from the mirror and bends her knees. Soon comes the clatter of her heels on the worn pine floor. Slowly she turns, dropping her arms to one side, then gathers up ruffles in either hand.
Elbows bent, arms taut, her hands begin pumping in rhythm with her feet, her circles gather, her heels rattle faster and faster, she dips left with one shoulder, she twists right with the other, her head drops back, her torso arcs to a perfect C, and soon she is spinning, swaying, feet drumming, now one hand raised, the wrist twisted, the fingers splayed, as if she were grasping a wide fan, her fingers branched out toward the sky. Her body moves effortlessly through the routine, her arms and legs assuming their positions automatically, much the way her mouth moves mindlessly through her prayers the rest of the week.

“RENATA!” The voice cuts sharply through the door. A fist pounding now joins the metallic sound of the door handle. “NOW!”

She stops, her eyes open slowly, giving her a sudden glimpse of her slightly parted red lips in the tiny mirror. She is breathing hard. Instantly, she begins giggling, covering her mouth with both hands. And then, striking the pose again, head up, chest thrust out, she walks majestically toward the door, unlocks it and opens it slowly.

“Your games...” Antonie says, head shaking side to side beneath the wide-brimmed hat, dark eyes dropping, then bouncing back up, as if eyesight were a rubber ball, rebounding from the floor. “Your games…I am…honestly, I am tired of them.”

Renata smiles, lifts her chin, passes beneath Antonie’s raised arm planted on the doorframe. Antonie wears the wide-brimmed felt hat, the black velvet jacket, the tight-fitting black pants that accentuate his narrow hips, pants threaded on the outside edge in a line of clear red and emerald beads and a purple and turquoise braid.

“My games,” Renata says, quietly, setting one hand on her swaying hip as she stares out beneath the velvet arm that forms an arch, not unlike the small arch to one side of the main chapel, “my games are exactly what I am here for. No?” She gazes over her bare shoulder. “Tell me, Antonie, without the games, what precisely would there be?” She pivots and gives him the look, and he moves swiftly from the door after her, as if riveted to the sharp metallic rattle of her shoes on the cool adobe tiles of the hall.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Music That Calls Renata to Dance

It's called "Tinto Verano," and it is a siguiriyas, composed and performed here by guitarist Maria Zemantauski. A siguiriyas is part of what is known as cante jondo, the deepest and most tragically-intense form of flamenco. While the origins of flamenco are difficult to pin down, the music is thought to be an amalgam of many ancient cultures. Siguiriyas is heavily influenced by gypsy culture and is generally performed only by the greatest of gypsy cantaors, or singers. The guitarists and dancers also must match this profundity of expression. The hammer on metal reflects the tradition of blacksmithing within the gypsy culture. Stay tuned for Chapter Three of "Switch!!," coming tomorrow, Sunday, March 23rd, when Renata DANCES.

Friday, March 21, 2008


"Switch!!" --like any work of art-- came to life thanks to many people, but first and foremost, it is the music that brought it alive. Guitarist Maria Zemantauski, a virtuoso on flamenco guitar, has for the past ten years patiently taught this writer the complex art of flamenco. Thanks to Maria Z, for her extraordinary music and for her inspiring teaching!!! Stay tuned, as this Sunday, March 23, in CHAPTER THREE, music makes Renata come alive!!!! Meanwhile, check out Maria's delightful website, where you can listen to her performances!!!! Oh, and for the first two chapters of the novel, see BELOW!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Switch!! Chapter Two, How Renata Begins

Renata’s Diary

April 1, 1883 And now, how to begin? And why? I write because I must. I write because I cannot trust memory anymore. I certainly cannot trust my cousin Antonie. When I close my eyes, I still see the wretched way he looked at me tonight. What is the peculiar horror that clouds his eyes? Hatred? Lechery? Lust? I know not what goes through that scheming mind of his, but I am afraid. So I write because I need a careful record. Who else do I dare tell about the strange events of late with Antonie?

My dear Sister Theresa tries to listen. But often when I speak, I see her smile drain away, and then, her gaze drops. She pares the potatoes more rapidly. Or scrubbing laundry, she looks away, nervously, and stares into the grey soapy water. The other day she looked straight at me. I could see dark clouds forming in those clear eyes of hers, eyes the color of the sky. “My dear Renata, are you being careful?”

“Careful?” I replied.

I squirmed beneath the pinch of black wool that is my habit.

Ah, there is so much I need to tell her, and so much --regarding him-- that I simply cannot. Well so, if I write it all here I will not have to fear Theresa’s or anyone else’s censure. Writing my diary, I will have someone, if only me, to listen, an ear that hears everything, a mind that understands completely.

So here, now, hear me commit myself to paper. So I can see myself. So I can guard myself safely in the tabernacle of my own words. I need my own hard and fast version of events, for, after what happened tonight, I fear that Antonie is orchestrating me in a distinctly murky light.

It was after midnight. I woke in a black well of darkness and the familiar music rose up. I heard the guitar and immediately it drew me to the window. I crossed the wooden floor, barefoot, and I peered down into the dark soup of night. Senora Ramos was holding the candle. Only the top half of her brown face was clear in the scanty light. Her eyes were stark and sober. From her invisible mouth, there rose an urgent whisper.

“Por favor senorita, please, you must come. He needs you now, Senor Antonie needs you so badly, he needs you right away tonight.”

The candle shifted, throwing her face into angles of yellow light. My heart responded, pumping faster.

“But my dear lady, I cannot possibly leave the convent now. Certainly not at this unseemly hour.”

“Oh but he is calling for you,” she insisted, her speech falling into a fast rattle of Spanish. She reached one hand up toward me. “I believe he has some fever" --she said "fiebre, fiebre" over and over again. "At least he sweats and sweats profusely, his face is slick, his color a sickly green, and his bed clothing drenched. When I left him, he was thrashing. He says you cannot keep him waiting any longer, that he is losing strength, but more important, he is losing his mind, he keeps wringing the sheets, tying them into a noose, he rips and tears and claws his own clothes, he cries out all kind of foul and impossible things, and he makes dark and ghastly threats, even at me, at me, and you know I am practically his mother! I hear him and his threats and I cover my ears, I cry in fear to my Dear Lord, because I know not from where it all comes, and what drives him to do this.”

I leaned further over the sill. It was never easy to refuse Senora, and tonight was no exception. Still, my head was full of reasons that I shouldn’t go. No one to escort me properly, and no one to make Father Ruby’s early morning bowl of coffee. No one to shake Mother Yolla out of sleep at six a.m. I would be expected in the kitchen at five. And in chapel by seven.

And yet, as I gazed down at Senora, I knew I couldn’t refuse her. She was a mother to me in childhood. And here she was more distraught than I had ever seen her. I worried for the old woman’s health.

“Senora, please come inside, will you?”

In the amount of time it takes to strike a match, Senora was beside me in my convent room. She settled onto my bed and I beside her. She spoke in a fast rattle of Spanish.

"I will escort you there and have you back here before the morning sun cracks over the horizon. I will vouch for your whereabouts, too, I will tell the good Father Ruby what I asked of you tonight. Please do this thing for me, or if not for me, for him, or if not for him, then for your dear uncle, for his memory. Please Renata, PLEASE! Because I fear if I return to him tonight without you, he may take his life.”

Reaching beneath her blue shawl, she took out a single rose. She held it out to me. The yellow flower looked as though it had been dipped in blood. At first I refused it.

“Ah, Senorita, ayudame, por favor,” the old woman said. She kept the rose there, her eyes pleading. So finally, I took it.

“Ahora, ven conmigo,” she whispered. “Rapidamente.”

I dressed quickly. Just as I was reaching for my black traveling cloak, Senora grabbed my hand. Instead, she took the sky blue flowered shawl from her own shoulders and dropped it to my own. I tried to protest, but Senora was already leading me by the hand out the door. As we crossed the courtyard behind the convent, I looked up. I saw the smallest sliver of moon, a silver whip curled up in the inky sky. Something in that peaceful thin line, curving like an open cup, reassured me, made my spirits rise. I hoisted myself up onto the gray wagon, and turned to help Senora.

She handed me the lantern and we set off. We rode silently together for the next hour, the dark sky a black platter for the sparkling stars. We rode close, my leg pinned into her fleshy hip. The draft horse moved slowly, hooves clop-clopping into the hard red mud of the rutted road. Soon there came the first screech of the coyotes. I tensed, and Senora sensed my fear. “No tengas miedo,” she whispered. She handed me the reins, and reached back into the wagon for the guitar. As I guided the wagon, she strummed, and soon, she was humming, and then wailing the way she does. As I heard the song rise up from childhood, and settle and dance around my heart, I knew that in the end it was the music that lured me here. It was the music that took me to my cousin's bedside, and music that would turn me into the woman I so dreaded to be.

Stay tuned for Chapter Three of Switch!!coming shortly, and a new website where the novel will reside!!!!Meanwhile, the novel is at:

Monday, March 17, 2008

Switch!! Chapter One, Tell me Sandra am I Insane?

By Claudia Ricci

This time I’m on the phone with my best friend, Sandra. This time I’m trying to explain it and I really think it’s finally making some sense.

But then I hear myself. “So I’ll be sitting there, reading a book, or standing at the counter, cutting a grapefruit or peeling a carrot,” I begin, “and then suddenly I close my eyes and something comes over me and I switch, boom, I am just...her.” The last word comes out as a whisper.

Sandra, who is closer to me than my own sister, was my roommate at Brown an eternity ago. She was a chemistry major. Thoroughly practical. Thoroughly. Rational. She learned how to measure clear liquids in glass beakers. She went on to grad school. She learned how to use something called a single-beam spectrophotometer. She mastered ion-exchange chromatography. And electrospray ionization mass spectrometry. Yeah, well, she is way-over-the-top brilliant. But the neat thing is, she's also gorgeous and hot and sexy, with a flawless complexion and a head full of these long fluffy dreds. And even though she's a brain, she's fun-loving and unpredictable and playful, and she has a heart the size -- and deep rich brown color -- of Africa.

A few years ago, she moved out to California to take an exciting new job. She spends her days working for the Ibex Corp. in San Jose, hunkered down in important meetings. Writing impressive research reports.

At home, her house sits in one of those immaculate California suburbs. The streets look buffed. Inside, her house is carpeted white. Her closets are organized with blue plastic crates. They are all labeled. She makes lists for every day of the week and she checks off each item she has completed at the end of every day. Her conversation is peppered with phrases like “at this point in time.”

A moment goes by. “Well, so, what’s the problem with getting into your characters? I don’t see the harm in having a very active imagination,” Sandra says. In college, I was the English major. I stayed up nights writing by a candle. Sandra would find me in the morning, my head on the desk next to the melted lump of white wax.

She used to read every short story I wrote. Every poem. All of it. Often she would write comments like, "I'm not sure I get the point of this one, but honestly I love it. I really do."

I am pacing the kitchen now. Ten steps to the door, ten more back to the jade plant in the corner. Around and around the granite counter three times, my fingers trailing the cool surface. “The problem, Sand, is that I can’t stop thinking that I’m her. Sister Renata. The problem is that I’m in her life as a nun more than I am in my own. The visions are coming more and more often.”

I close my eyes. I feel my backside damp and cold against the stone bench. I feel my fingers gripping the bars. I smell the rust on my hands and the cabbage slop in my metal dish and the sweat in my pits and worst of all, I smell the shit in the foul pail. The putrid odor is a swamp rising out of the corner of the tiny cell. Only when I yell and yell and bang my spoon incessantly on the dish does the jailer finally come down the hall jangling his keys and complaining about having to retrieve it.


"Yeah?” I am back on the phone.

"As long as you’re getting to work, teaching your classes, and functioning in the house, I don’t think you should worry too much.”

I run my finger, the one that’s sore from playing the flamenco rasqueados on the guitar, along the granite counter. Quartz crystals the color of a cantaloupe glisten under the kitchen light. “But I do … worry,” I say, very softly. “Lately I worry a lot.”

Sandra sighs. “I know you do,” she says. “You worry way too much.” She doesn’t ask what I worry about. She doesn’t have to. She flew back East numerous times six years ago, just so she could be with me through the chemotherapy and radiation, the treatment that almost killed me, for the cantaloupe-sized tumor that filled my chest. She has also accompanied me on occasion to see a few other doctors too, namely, my shrink. Once she helped me make a list of all the meds I’ve been on -- Ativan to Prozac to Zoloft. She assembled careful notes when side effects forced me off.

And she’s been with me through the last year, through too many phone conversations to count, when I wept over my last child --Adam-- leaving for college. And then, my husband David’s affair, which ended, but left me wallowing in misery and despair. There have been buckets of tears filling Sandra's and my transcontinental conversations of late.

I thank her again for sending me a half dozen embroidered hand towels for my bathroom. She used her brand new, super deluxe $7500 sewing machine to embroider each towel with my favorite flower -- a yellow rose with blood red tips.
That also happens to be the very same rose I see so often when I close my eyes and jump back in time to the other life.

“You are more than welcome to those towels. I felt bad I didn’t get them to you sooner, in time for the holiday. And I felt bad we didn’t get to see each other this year over Christmas or New Year's. So are you thinking of coming out here for a visit any time soon?”

“Maybe.” And then I start to say something that I had no idea whatsoever I was going to say until this moment. “I want to come out to do..."

I stop.

“To do what?”


“Research? On what?” Sandra heads up a quality control unit at Ibex. They do all kinds of studies on subjects I'm not sure I can describe.

“Well, so, you know. I would be researching this...this story about Sister Renata because I feel maybe..."

Sandra interrupts. “I would say just do what you have to do. Come out. Stay with us. Maybe this is what you need. A way to distract yourself from all the heartache and trauma you’ve been through.” She sighs. Her words feel like cold little hammers tapping on my heart. My fingers freeze on the granite counter.

“What I wanted to say, Sand, is that I honestly believe the nun story could be...true. I mean, everybody I tell it to says they think so too.”

I keep seeing the newspaper in my mind. The San Francisco Examiner headline: “Nun may hang for her cousin's murder.”

“Honestly, I see all it so clearly in my head.” I let my sentence go off a cliff of silence.

My dear dear Sandra, always there for me, catches it. “Well you are always welcome here,” she says simply. “Whatever it is you want to do, Don and I would love the company. So just come on out and stay as long as you want to. You’ll have to have a car of course.”

“So then you don’t think I’m...crazy to do this?” I hold my breath.

Sandra laughs. One short laugh. “Of course I think you’re crazy. You’ve always been crazy. You're just a little more crazy now. But that’s what I love about you. Or one thing at least.”

When I hang up the phone, I go out to the backyard without a jacket, even though it’s March and only 20 degrees. I walk in my house slippers across the brown crusted grass and when I get into the middle of the backyard I gaze up to the dark sky. Pinpricks of light. Glittering stars. Blinking on and on and off and off. The stars start it going.

The switching. I close my eyes and there I am, under an pale green night sky, and I'm riding on the wagon with Senora Ramos once

Stay tuned for Chapter Two of "Switch!!" a novel by blog! A website is coming shortly, where the entire novel will be housed. Meanwhile, the novel is at:

Saturday, March 15, 2008

"Governing Ourselves"

By Renee Geel

A bright spotlight has been shining harshly on New York all week as we have wrestled with the aftermath of Governor Eliot Spitzer’s resignation and his involvement with a sex scandal. Not only is the rest of the country looking at us, but we’re forced to look at ourselves as New Yorkers, too, with a mix of emotions and reactions to this week’s news.

Repeatedly, I have run into people this week with whom the conversation has turned quickly to these events with words like disappointment, unbelievable, and foolish punctuating opinion, and with sentiments like shock, firm-jawed desire for comeuppance, and sadness.

This situation is dumbfounding to say the least as we look outwardly from our own internal worlds, eyes focused on the Governor and his family. And while I, too, am filled with sadness and shock and disappointment, what lays most heavily inside me is the frightening realization that we are all capable of making what are deemed wrong or bad decisions.

I am not trying to justify Governor Spitzer’s actions; I am, like so many millions of others, trying to understand them.

What I keep coming back to is that we are all both governors and subjects of our own strengths and weaknesses, capabilities and frailties, opportunities and regrets. The world and our existence in it are in a constant and precarious tango of strategy and chance. The decisions we made yesterday won’t necessarily be the ones we’ll make today, and the circumstances we come up against are just as variable.

I am left still believing in the notion of free will, but also convinced that there are times when it is an immense challenge to exercise it. Perhaps somewhere deep inside, we get tired of all the taskmastering we subject ourselves to in the name of ambition and propriety; sometimes, perhaps, we are lured just to lose the battle with our free will – to experience that delicious danger and supreme surrender. If ambition and achievement are any indication of one’s internal taskmaster, I suspect that Eliot Spitzer’s is nearly relentless. Nearly. And for many years, that taskmaster served him and the public well. But even if we do need to release ourselves from our self-imposed chokehold sometimes – even if he needed that – I wish he’d chosen something less catastrophic. Desire and regret: I wish, I wish...If only, if only. On and on our daily struggle goes.

The New York Times ran a piece exploring why Governor Spitzer thought he might be one who wouldn’t get caught. And it went on to provide a list of transgressions by public officials in the past, of which there was quite a number – just the tip of the iceberg, I suspect. But there is no relative scale of good and bad judgment because we only know what we know. What about all the transgressions people have gotten away with since the beginning of time, transgressions that never became public? I imagine it’s far more common than we realize that people give into their impulses.

We can’t go back now; there is no rewind button to make this past week go away. Nor can we act as though the rest of the world has held its breath while we come to terms with all of this. With a new Governor stepping into the job on Monday, life - and hopefully New York State government - can proceed. Meanwhile, troops are still battling it out in Iraq; a war crimes trial in The Hague has begun; and plenty of people – named and unnamed – have lied, stolen, cheated, betrayed, and murdered.

It’s a delicate balance, this business of being human. We have to look out from ourselves at the world around us and know that we are not its epicenter and that we need to do our part and hopefully make the best decisions we can every day. And we have to come to terms with the fact that it won’t always be the case. We need to look deeply inside and know that all of us have committed our own transgressions – whether secret or revealed – and that we affect the world as much as we are affected by it.

Renee Geel is a freelance writer and editor from upstate New York and is currently running -- and tripping a little, too -- to the finish line of her novel.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Growing Up at The Actors' Orphanage

By Judy W. Staber

Prologue: December 1946

Imagine being three years old and left on the doorstep of a house bigger than any you had ever seen before -- a giant's house! An ogre's castle?

My earliest memory of The Actors' Orphanage where I grew up in England, is arriving in a black taxi from Chertsey Station with my sister Susannah, and being handed over to Commander Aggitter on that doorstep by our mother.

I can recall no tears shed, no hugs or kisses “goodbye,” just the feeling of being dwarfed by the huge front entry way, the high ceilings and the very large people.

Perhaps there’s a remembered whiff of Je Reviens perfume as our mother walked down the six stone steps and into the waiting taxi without so much as a backward glance.

We watched that taxi disappear down the oh-so-long driveway. An older boy was summoned to take our small pile of belongings upstairs to one of the rooms on the second floor.

I suppose later that day we were introduced to the matron and to Mrs. Aggitter, and eventually, probably at the next meal, to the other children. But I don't remember that. I don't remember the time of day, or what the weather was (grey, I expect). I just remember the big-ness of it all.

It was the week between Christmas and New Year's in 1946, just days before my fourth birthday, that our actress mother took Susannah, seven and a half, and me down to Chertsey in Surrey to live at Silverlands, home of The Actors Orphanage, just outside the town. I was to remain there for all my childhood.

I flew to America at the age of sixteen and a half, finally out from under the orphanage's care at last, never to return.

And so, what can she say of those nearly thirteen years in between?

Stay tuned for more.

Writer Judy Staber is pictured at four years old in the photo at the top of this post (she's the one on the far left.) She stands next to her older sister, Susannah. Staber, who lives with her husband John in Columbia County in upstate New York, is retired today after 28 years in arts administration. This prologue is taken from the memoir Staber is writing about growing up at The Actor's Orphanage from 1947 to 1959.

Monday, March 10, 2008

My Heart Breaks for Silda Spitzer

By Claudia Ricci

My heart breaks for her.

Her, being Silda.

The focus in all the news outlets wass, of course, on the Governor himself.

The question on everybody’s mind: whether, or more appropriately, when he would resign. How long will it would take this man to see that he had absolutely no choice but to step down.

But as I watched with millions of others as Spitzer told the world that he needed time to repair wounds with his family (how much time, bud, a millenium?) the face I watched wasn’t Eliot’s.

It was Silda’s.

I watched, in horror, as she stood there. Strained. Tired. Tragic.

She stood there. Beside her husband.

I cannot imagine how she managed to stand there, on her two feet, in her ice blue suit, without melting.

I cannot imagine having to do it, and how she felt.

How, I keep thinking,
could she do it?

And how, I keep wondering,
could he?

We will learn from her example how to handle life’s unforeseen crises, with grace, and compassion, and stoic determination.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

"Enough Already: Why Can't Clinton and Obama Share the Same Ticket?"

NOTE: This piece appears today, March 9, 2008, in the Sunday (Schenectady) Gazette at:

By Claudia Ricci

Enough already.

The race between Senators Clinton and Obama for the Democratic Presidential nomination has gone on long enough! Each candidate has shown great political strength, and more than enough potential to win at the national level. Each candidate brings a bounty of enthusiastic supporters from historically-underrepresented groups. And each candidate is up against fierce and deeply held prejudices – against blacks and women – come the general election in the fall.

So isn’t it time that we –and most importantly, they, the candidates—take seriously the notion that the two of them run on the same ticket?

As it is, with Clinton’s taking Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island, the race promises to drag on and on. The Republicans have their man and are headed straight for the polls to win the general election. The Dems, meanwhile, keep battling it out state by state, and coming up without a clear winner. More important, we are coming apart at the seams. Nothing short of a superdelegate supermiracle is going to solve this dilemma, and the bitterness, and yes, even, the hatred that will be left behind among the supporters of the defeated Dem isn’t going to do our cause one bit of good.

So why can’t Clinton and Obama run together? I say the simplest explanation? Ego. You don’t run for President without a Grand Canyon-sized personality, and a Mount Everest-sized desire to see yourself sitting in the position of supreme political power. Commander in Chief. Blah blah blah.

But haven’t both candidates campaigned on wanting what’s best for the country? And haven’t both candidates –with Obama’s message far more resonant—said they favor real change, a radical shift in direction, change that opens up the possibility for the United States to move in a new direction?

What, pray tell, could be more dramatic, more likely to set a new direction, than having a black and a woman running on the same ticket?

The dilemma the Dem’s face can be seen right in my own household. My son, who at 18 is already a bit of a political junky, supports Obama whole-heartedly, and his message – change. I too am drawn to Obama’s astonishing appeal, and his supreme rhetorical gifts. Yes, in the end, after a real struggle to decide, I supported him in the New York primary.

But as a middle-aging white woman, I found myself this week rooting for Hillary.
Why? Because I am a middle-aged woman. I am not a guy. On a gut level, I find myself wanting this older woman –who lately has been a decided underdog—to win. I want to stick it right in the face of all those guys (and gals) who pooh pooh the idea that the time is right for a woman to run this country. I want the guys of the world to feel what it’s like not to be so powerful, for a change. I want this because I know first-hand and very painfully, how awful it feels to be a woman who is losing her power as she ages. We women have it tough, because as we age, we by definition no longer are as physically appealing, and our mothering roles lie behind us.

Middle-aged men don’t have the same problems.

Yeah, so, OK, I want Hillary. But part of me also wants Obama.

In the Texas primary, Hilary won thanks in large part to the heavy Latino vote. Now think about that. Here you have a man of color, Obama, who by rights should attract the votes of a people of color. But he didn’t.

So there you go. The complexities of the Democratic side of the race are enormous.

Except, if you put all the complexities together in one ticket – a black and a woman, the Dems, I say, would be unbeatable. And all of my friends agree.

All of us who have felt so left out over the years, politically, living in a country dominated by conservative white men, would rise up and hold hands and stand up and cheer for real change.

My hand is up. I am ready. And I hope somebody out there, today, starts to circulate the petition. Because God knows, I’d be the first one to sign.

Claudia Ricci, Ph.D., was formerly a reporter at The Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Sun-Times. She now teaches journalism, English and creative writing at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her first novel, Dreaming Maples, is available on

Thursday, March 06, 2008

"Living With Parkinson's Disease"

Playwright Dina Harris, who lives on Cape Cod, has had Parkinson's Disease for the last 11 years. Her treatment regimen? Medication, but also, daily exercises following in the tradition of Tai Chi. She practices the ancient form itself, but also does meditation walks and other exercises rooted in Tai Chi. Whenever she moves, she “negotiates” or talks to her brain. She has an amazing technique for “kickstarting” her brain by talking it through the tough moments when she can’t move the way she wants to, say through a doorway.

Read this extraordinary piece by a woman with courage and great creativity. Dina looks forward to sharing more of her experiences with others who have PD, but who might not be aware of how much they can do to improve their quality of life. —

“Talking to Your Brain”

By Dina Harris

To start, here is my very simplified definition of Parkinson’s Disease. It is a disease of the brain, in which the loss of the neurotransmitter dopamine affects how you move and how you feel. The disease is progressive and there is no cure. Yet!

If you are a person with PD or a caregiver or friend of someone who has it, before you start looking up some very scary things that might happen to you, remind yourself that no one knows exactly how your disease will progress. Why? Because even though we all have many of the same basic symptoms, each of us has our own personal supply of dopamine in our brain and our own reactions to the PD medications and treatments. Also, the diagnosis for PD is still a “clinical” one. There are no tests. You need to find a neurologist who is a “movement disorder specialist.”

I was diagnosed in 1997, the year my son got married in New York and my niece wed her long-time guy in California. I remember it this way, because that year gave me the bitter along with the sweet. My initial reactions to the suggestion by two neurologists I first saw –that I could have PD– were a disaster. The nicer one wondered if it was PD or anxiety. The other dismissed me after ten minutes of giving notes to his sleep-deprived resident, never once looking at me. He offered up a medicine, whose efficacy and side effects, he said, “I could look up on the Web.”

He added, speaking over his shoulder, that I could take the medicine “if I wanted a better quality of life.” It was my choice. Then he was out the door. Something was happening with my brain, but I hadn’t lost my mind. I certainly was not going to do anything this creep had thrown my way. I was so filled with anguish and despair that I simply chose not to think about it for months.

I knew what I could do and what I couldn’t do: I could not walk heel-toe. I shuffled along with my arms hanging stiffly at my sides instead of swinging automatically. I never had any shaking or tremors. (I later learned that many of us do not.) What I felt was that if I let myself tap into all the happy excitement of my son’s up-and-coming wedding, I would be able to be part of the wedding party, get up to dance the Hora, and would look gorgeous in the wedding photos. I did. I did. I did!

After the wedding, I went to see an amazing neurologist, Dr. Lucien Cote at Columbia Presbyterian in New York. “You are so lucky that it is Parkinson’s,” Dr. Cote said to me at that first visit, “because there is so much we can do for you!” This extraordinary man examined — but also talked to me– for two hours, explaining what was happening to me at that moment, what we could do for my care, and answered all of my questions. I had never before met a doctor who treated me with such compassion and respect. He prescribed 5 mg of Selegeline with breakfast, describing what the medicine does — and amazingly, told me to do Tai Chi at least three times a week. This, plus physical therapy, was my medical regimen for the first year of my PD.

Tai Chi is a brilliant choice, because with PD you have to talk to your brain all the time! Tai Chi trains you to do the same thing. With constant repetition and practice of the Tai Chi moves, what your body learns is then imprinted on your brain. At home or on a plane, on the street or in any public place, talking to my brain — sometimes combined with tricks I call “kick starts” — are what get me up and keep me moving. I look forward to sharing some of these “kick starts” with you in another post.

A few years ago, my husband and I left New York and moved to Cape Cod, where I started a PD support group that includes a 40-minute exercise segment. Being able to help others with what I have learned about living with PD, as Dr. Cote has helped me, has given me, in my sixth decade, the gift of growing as a human being. “…There is so much we can do for you,” the doctor said to me almost 11 years ago. It’s still true. Stay tuned for the next PD post and we’ll continue our adventure!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

"The Garden"

By Camincha

The garden of her childhood was at the center of the house. A square about eleven by eleven feet. Alba might have been ten years old.

It was the morning of a hot December 31. The last day of the year, and her mother was readying the house “to receive the New Year.”

She had gone on with the long, consuming preparations over a succession of early mornings to avoid the scorching noon sun. Summer in Miraflores, Peru, was just starting, but already it was hot and humid, beach weather that promised to last for many weeks to come.

Her mother had ordered that the little garden be watered. And she was talking about the flowers. See? She said. How thankful they are! See? she repeated, her smile broadening, her eyes playful.

Alba’s mother seemed pleased at that moment. As if she felt rewarded. She exuded a buoyancy unusual in her, a lovely woman whose young life had been paved with tragedies. She had become an orphan at age eight.

The tiny garden made her smile. It contained the sum of her loving, persistent efforts. The numerous assortments of cuts she gathered in their evening walks when she rummaged in the neatly wrapped burlap bundles left by gardeners for the early morning pick-up. She was looking for the best, the healthiest pieces to plant in her little square.

Alba knew from her frugal upbringing the why of her mother’s behavior. In those bundles was a golden opportunity. A veritable botanical garden just for the picking!

Alba remembers, on their walks, how her mother would bend over the bundles, choosing the healthiest of geraniums, jasmine, roses, carnations and so many others she didn’t even know the names of.

The patch of dirt under her care and devotion, over time, yielded beautiful flowers that surprised everyone with their perfume! Ah! the perfume. And unexpected colors and sizes. The dahlias and geraniums yielded enormously big blossoms, some of mixed colors, others of solid white, pink, red. Roses came also in many colors, but their blossoms could be big, small or tiny. Sweet alyssum were white or purple. Sweet peas were pink, red or white and the lilies had such variety of colors, from the enormous off-white blossoms of the calla lilies, to the all white of the Easter lilies to the yellow with dark red splotches in the small flowers of the Peruvian lilies. All competed for encouragement, admiration and support. In time the little garden yielded a rainbow of perfumed, variegated flowers.

And three feet away against the south wall her mother planted the jasmine that, it seemed, in no time at all, grew and grew and covered itself with white blossoms, in such profusion, with such vigor and zest that the entire area became a three-dimensional tapestry exuding the most penetrating perfume. Summer evenings the perfume embraced you, caressed you, covered you. So strong, you could touch it.

“To receive the New Year,” the windows were washed in the whole house, the floors scrubbed, waxed, polished. The pots and pans in the kitchen, the stove, the table, batan, were all scrubbed until they shone. All the linens were changed. Finally the corridor was swept and mopped till the cement reflected the blue sky like it had been waxed.

Then Alba’s mother turned her attention to the little garden. She ordered that it be watered. Pail after pail of water was filled, another, then another. And poured carefully, slowly on the little garden.

The dirt soaked it up. The mud resembled freshly whipped chocolate icing. The dahlias and geraniums that had started to wilt lifted their wary petals for them. The sweet alyssum, lilies and sweet peas shone with appreciation. Alba stood by watching intently. The maid’s body rippled under the hot sun, her hips swaying, her underarms soaked, her upper lip covered with beads of perspiration. The water was being absorbed by the dark, granulated thirsty soil.

Her mother anxiously supervised. She smiled, her face lighted up. Her eyes bright, kind. See? she said. See how thankful they are! See? Her wistful smile made Alba feel she was in the presence of a miracle.

Alba can hear her right now. See? How thankful they are! See?

Camincha is a pen name for a California-based writer who grew up in Peru.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

An excerpt from SPINNING WILL, a novel

"A Place Without Shadows"

By P.M. Woods

Note: A book signing will be held today, March 1st, from 3-5 p.m. for “Spinning Will," a new novel by writer P.M. Woods. All are invited to Red Maple Books, Ghent, N.Y. to meet Woods, and to hear her read from her highly praised book. Here is one comment: "Spinning Will is a wonderfully seductive book, a tale whose hypnotic language migrates between the rocky California coast and the slow, steady flow of the Hudson River, between the sorrow and exuberance of leaving one life for another.” -- Joyce Hinnefeld

By P.M. Woods

Living in L.A. I missed the winter, living in upstate New York I miss the beach.

Growing up in Massachusetts I missed everything I imagined another place to be.

Over dinner one night Lainie says, “Wouldn’t it be great to live in a place that was all the aspects of the good places you have ever been?”

“And none of the bad?” I add.

“Do you think such a place would even exist?” she continues.

“Maybe,” I say.

“Invent the perfect place,” Lainie invites me. “Invent a place with the perfect climate, the perfect landscape. A place that combines everything you need with everything you desire.”

“I already have everything I need,” I tell her.

“You do?” she asks doubtfully.

“I already have everything I want,” I say.

“Really?” Lainie says, sensing I’m not being completely truthful.

But this is what I like about Lainie. She never pushes the issue.

As we talk I remember this.

I am walking along the beach. It is dusk. The waves are barely visible, but I can hear them coming in and going out. Will is almost a shadow beside me, almost a shadow moving next to me, a shadow moving almost out of my reach, just a bit beyond my touch. But no matter how dark it becomes, no matter how far I move away from him,

I continue to feel him next to me.

I don’t tell Lainie this, but I do say, “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I don’t think I have everything I want right now.”

“Who does?” Lainie says to keep me company knowing that I actually mean something more than this.

“Maybe I would invent a place with no shadows,” I say.

“No shadows,” she echoes without asking me why.

P.M. "Peggy" Woods, Ph.D., teaches writing for the Writing Program and the Commonwealth College at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, as well as in workshops for Star Root Press. Dr. Woods earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of New Hampshire; a master’s from California State University, Northridge; and a doctorate from the University at Albany, SUNY. She lives in Western Massachusetts. Spinning Will, her first novel, is published by Swank Books of Boston.