Thursday, January 31, 2013

Chapter 60, Sister Mysteries: After 18 Years of Writing, I Come Face to Face With Renata!!

Sister Mysteries, an on-line novel, tells the story of a nun, Sister Renata, who in 1883 was falsely accused and convicted of murdering her cousin. In this chapter, we see how she might finally go free.

Assisted by two of the other nuns, Bernice and Laura Lee, Teresa pulls Renata into the rocking chair. There she sits, slumped against one arm. Teresa runs for smelling salts, and Bernice boils water for chamomile tea. Laura Lee -- a delicate girl with dimples and great splotches of reddish-brown freckles -- holds Renata in a sitting position.

Kneeling in front of the chair, Teresa passes the salts under Renata's nose, until the smell of the ammonia starts Renata's head moving side to side. "Enough," she whispers. "Please no more."

Teresa pulls the salts away. "We have tea for you Renata, tea with gobs of honey. You must be so thirsty." She holds the cup up and takes a spoonful of the yellow tea. Blowing on it a few times, she lifts the spoon to Renata's open mouth. For the next few minutes, Teresa feeds Renata the warm tea. But soon Renata pushes Teresa's hand away.

"I must see Señora now," she whispers, wriggling out of Laura Lee's grip. "Please Teresa, please take me up to her."

"At least finish the tea, and put something solid in your stomach." Teresa bends closer and steadies a gaze at Renata head on. "I promise if you have a little of the rabbit stew we ate for dinner, and finish the tea, I will bring you to her."

Renata's face wrinkles up in disgust. "You know how I feel about rabbit stew. Just spoon me a few carrots and onions and some parsley and that will do."

Teresa rises, hands the mug to Renata. "You drink this up. And if you're still thirsty, Bernice will fix you a second cup."

After she has eaten half the vegetables that Teresa scooped into a bowl, and after she finishes most of a second cup of tea, Renata rises from the rocking chair. Teresa takes her arm and they pass through the convent's dining room and to the staircase. Soon they are in the second floor bedroom where Señora lies, her face small and almond-colored.  Renata sits on one side of the bed, Teresa on the other.

Leaning forward, Renata whispers. "I'm here, my dear Señora. I am here beside you and I won't leave  you."

Señora is lying in such perfect stillness that it isn't clear she is breathing.  Teresa holds a finger below Señora's nose.  After a few moments she takes her hand away.

"I have an idea," Renata says, getting up. "I'll be right back." She hurries to her old room, the straw mattress stiff and minus any sheets. Kneeling, Renata drags from beneath the bed the guitar she keeps wrapped in an old Indian blanket.  She sinks to the floor and hums a low E, and quickly tunes the strings.

Soon she is hurrying back to the bedroom to Señora and Teresa, who smiles when she sees the guitar.

"It's worth a try, don't you agree?"

Guitar cradled in her lap, Renata plays the carcelero that Señora loves.

"In three days I've eaten
Only bread and tears:
That is the food
That my jailers give.
How do they expect me to live?"

She follows the carcelero with a soleares and a farrucca and finally, a rousing bulerías.

Señora is motionless, the music passing over her like a soft breeze.  Renata puts the guitar down and takes Señora's hand and kisses it.  "I know you can hear me," she says. "I just know you feel me here."

She takes out her beads and together with Teresa, they pray the rosary.

"It's late, Renata," Teresa says at the end of the prayers. "Tomorrow is another day.  Please, I'll make your bed up for you. And I'll find a place for Arthur to rest downstairs. Come now. Let her be."

Renata wraps her rosary beads around Señora's hand, and places a kiss on the old woman's forehead.  Teresa is out the door and Renata is just about to blow out the candle on the nighttable when she hears a soft groan.

Whipping around, she sees the rosary beads shaking in Señora's hand. "Teresa, Teresa, look!"

By now, Renata has Señora's hand in hers.  "You're awake, you're awake!" It takes a few minutes before Señora's eyes open.  She blinks. Her lips tremble, and Renata is sure she sees a smile on them.

"Oh my dear Señora you're back," Renata says in a hush.  Señora opens her mouth but nothing comes out. "Don't try to speak. Don't."

Teresa and Renata stand there staring at Señora.  The old woman opens her mouth. "Sietaté," she whispers in a hoarse tone. The nuns sit down.  Renata takes both of Señora's hands in hers.

"Mi'ja," Señora begins. And then she whispers in Spanish. "It's my time. It's my time. I'm not long on God's good earth now."

"How do you know that Señora, you can't possibly know God's will."

Señora continues to speak to Renata in Spanish, in a hushed whisper. "There is no time for discussing this now. You must do for me what you have steadfastly refused to do all these months. You must find those missing pages of your journal and present them to the authorities. Please. Please, for me do this."

"No," Renata says, pulling back. "I won't do that. You know you can ask and you can beg, but I am not turning in those pages. Justice will be served and I remain in God's hands, with Mary to protect me too."

Teresa pipes up. "Señora is right. You've come back here now, Renata, and clearly there is no way we can protect you. Not for long can we hide you. The gallows is ready and waiting. The authorities will hang you as soon as word gets out.  Please, abide by Señora's dying wish."

Renata rises, and turns toward the darkened window, her arms crossed. "I vowed I would never turn Señora in. I made myself a solemn promise. I can't turn back on that now."

Señora struggles to one elbow. And out of her comes a voice that I know so well. The voice in which she has spoken to me for the past 18 years. The voice that has pulled me back to Renata's world, time and again.

"Por favor Claudia," Señora cries out.  "Ahora es muy importante que tu vienes aquí. Por favor!"

And as I sit here, typing, my laptop disappears and I let go of this world and move to the sound of Señora's voice. Suddenly I am in the room with the three characters whose lives I have entwined so tightly with my own.

Teresa and Renata stare at me. I'm wearing my blue bathrobe and white sox, and my hair must look like an awful fright. I haven't showered and I've got the sour breath one has after a night's sleep and a cup of coffee.

"Hola, Señora," I say and she reaches a hand out to me. Slowly I approach the bed. Renata's eyes are wide and forbidding and Teresa looks like she's seen a lizard crawl across the bed covers.  I clear my throat and don't come any closer.  "You don't know me of course," I say, my voice shaking.  "But I am Claudia Ricci, a writer, and I love Señora as much as both of you."

"How could you possibly?" Renata asks, her voice shaking. "I've never seen you, nor has Teresa. Where did you come from?" Renata scans me head to toe and Teresa shakes her head vigorously.

"I understand completely," I say. "I've been working with Señora from afar. You would not believe me if I told you how far," I say. "It's much too hard to explain."

Señora sits up.  She asks for her shawl and Teresa brings it to her and wraps it around her shoulders. Teresa and Renata stand beside her like protective soldiers. And then she begins to speak. Thankfully, she speaks in a slow Spanish that I can understand.

"This woman is writing your story, Renata. She's been writing it for 18 years."

I pipe up. "Actually it's exactly 18 years. Yesterday. January 25, 1995 is the day I started this book."

"What? What are you saying?" Renata takes a step toward me. Funny that I never thought her to be the least bit threatening before.  "What book are you referring to? And what is this about 1995? And how could you possibly know me or my story?"

Señora smiles.  "I'll ask you to be patient Renata. What you are witnessing here my dear is the work of the Virgin Mary. Her miracles, as you know, we can never explain. Miracles of Mary's making. This is one of those miracles."

"What do you mean?"

"The virgin appeared in a vision one night, right after you were hung."


Señora shakes her head. Her face is solemn. "You see Renata, time has come unhinged. After you died, I so regretted letting you sacrifice yourself on my behalf that I prayed continually to Mary for forgiveness. She came to me one night and said that together, we were going to rewrite history."

"Excuse me, Señora, but this makes absolutely no sense to me. Are you telling me you erased events that already took place."

Señora shakes her head slowly.

I decide to take a step forward. Renata tenses and steps back. "I am not here to hurt you," I say. "Please understand that's the last thing you have to fear."

Señora continues. "So why is Claudia here? Because I called for her. With Mary's help, I found Claudia, a woman who was willing to write the true story of Antonie's death.  This woman you see here lives far into the future on the other side of the continent."

Renata collapses into the chair. "Surely you don't expect me to believe this," she says. She turns to Teresa who is just as dumbfounded.

"What Señora says is absolutely true," I say. "I come from a moment in history when we have such things as cars with engines and computers and mobile telephones and electricity and airplanes that fly."

"I don't believe it," Renata says. "I don't buy any of this silliness."

"You must listen," Señora commands. "You must listen Renata. If you fail to listen, you will most certainly hang, as you did the first time. The gallows is waiting and they will string you up in the hot sun in the courtyard without the slightest hesitation."

"I don't understand," Renata says. "How can this woman from the future help me escape? Does she takes me with her?"

The thought of transporting the nun back to Albany, New York, or to the little hamlet of Spencertown, where I live, makes me smile.

"No, Renata," I say. "I just write the story. It's up to me to make you see the wisdom of releasing those two pages from your journal. Those pages that cannot hurt Señora anymore. You were right when you first decided to hold them back, because the authorities would have hung Señora, a Mexican woman, without even a trial.  A Mexican woman killing a white American man.  But now Señora's time is up."

"How do you know that? How could you possibly know anyth..."

"Silencio!" Señora shouts.  She lifts her pillow and takes out a piece of yellowed newspaper. She unfolds it. The headline reads in big block letters, "NUN FINALLY HUNG FOR THE MURDER OF HER COUSIN." Two columns of writing appear and in the center of the page is a very clear drawing of the nun swinging from a rope.

Renata gasps. Teresa cries out.  "My God!"

"I hope you see now that the gallows is real," Señora says. "I hope you understand why the Virgin has interceded here.  This is what happened the first time around. You did hang for Antonie's murder. You refused to produce those pages of the journal that tell the true story."

"Let me see that newspaper," Renata says snatching it away from Señora with a shaking hand.  Sweat sprouts on her brow. "I don't know how this is possible. This is not ....this is...out of this world. This is impossible. This is ..."

"Un milagro," Señora says, finishing her sentence. "Yes, Renata, this is a miracle. That we are here, today, the three of us, with this woman writer from the future. This woman who in fact can save you. Give you the freedom you have so long deserved. Let her do her work. Give her those journal pages. Let her write them down. Let the authorities see the truth. Nothing can hurt me now. They won't touch me now. Not when I am this close to my hour of death."

Teresa speaks. "I am not sure I believe what I am hearing and seeing, Renata, but by God, this is indeed a miracle of some kind. I think this is your lifeboat Renata. You've got to cooperate. You've always told me that I would be the one to tell the true story after your death. It would be me who would reveal at the proper time -- after Señora's death -- what actually happened to Antonie. But now I see there is no reason to wait. No reason at all for you to die. And every reason for you to go free. You must do as she says Renata. You must trust this woman in the blue robe, because it is exactly the same blue color as the Virgin's veil."

Renata turns slowly to face me. I see her finely chiseled features, made sharper by the fact that she is so thin. Her hair is standing in a wispy black brush. She is as pale as cotton and even has some premature grey hairs. There has been so much happening to her since that chapter I wrote so long ago, when she supposedly turned into a flamenco dancer and danced on the table.

She reaches out one hand and I don't hesitate to take it. Renata's fingers are cool and slim and delicate. "It is a pleasure to meet you ma'am," she begins, "and even though I am still not inclined to believe that you are from the future, I have to say, Señora is rather persuasive with this newspaper she somehow managed to find."

I smile. "You know, it would have been up to me to produce that newspaper account," I say, "seeing as though I am writing the story.  But more than anything in the world Renata, I wanted you to live. I never wanted to write the story of your hanging. Suffice to say it's quite nice that the Virgin Mary somehow made it possible for Señora to get that clipping -- without me having to do a thing -- to help convince you of my good intentions in writing your story."

Teresa is sitting down now. And shaking her head. "Amazing. Somehow the Virgin is helping to change history," she whispers. She opens her hands one to each side.  "This is too much to take in all at once."

Señora turns. "Renata, find the missing journal pages please. Let Claudia have them for her story."

"No, Señora," I interrupt. "It's not my story. It's your story. And most especially it's Renata's."

"In any case, bring the journal pages to me," Señora says, slipping down under the covers.  "And then, if you wouldn't mind, I would love a cup of tea."

And so Renata leaves the room to retrieve the missing journal pages. And Teresa goes downstairs to make tea.

And me? I pick up Renata's guitar and play for Señora one of my favorite flamenco tunes, a bulerías that my teacher Maria Z. taught me many years ago.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Breathing Love

On a day when the thermometer is barely able to reach five degrees outside, a very heart-warming meditation exercise has emerged inside.

I had heard about meditation practices that involve breathing love into your heart, or breathing in rhythm with your heart, but today for some reason I decided to experiment with it.

I sat there at the meditation table, candles burning. I had a very soft blanket covering my head to keep warm. I slipped my right hand into my nightshirt and placed it against my bare chest, right over my heart. I took my left hand and laid it over the right hand. Feeling the skin of my hand against the skin of my breast was very reassuring. Feeling my two hands covering my heart was also resassuring.

Feeling the steady beating of my heart brought a smile to my face and comfort to my mind.

I began to breathe in and out, in rhythm with my heartbeat:
breathe in, beat beat,
breathe out, beat beat,
breathe in, beat beat,
breathe out, beat beat.

As I inhaled, I imagined the love from my heart mixing with the air in my lungs and making a circle in my chest. Over and over again the love and air -- light, free and clear -- passed around and around my heart. This circular pattern felt so comforting, and so warm and energizing, as if I was reminding myself, or perhaps teaching myself in a new way, that it's OK, indeed, it's important, to feel a profound love for oneself. Sharon Salzberg reminds us of this principle in her lovingkindness -- or metta -- meditation. In that meditation practice, which ultimately involves sending lovingkindness to all beings everywhere, we start by sending lovingkindness to ourselves, saying:

May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I be filled with lovingkindness.
May I be free from suffering and fear.
May I live with ease.

In order to be loving towards others, we must first love ourselves. We must accept who we are, with all of our strengths and good traits, as well as our weaknesses. We must be comfortable in our own skin and hopefully, delight in our own company. What better way to remind ourselves of this than by engaging two of our most basic life functions:

heartbeat and

Those of you who already meditate might want to give this one a try. And for those of you who say you can't meditate because your mind wanders, you may find it easier to concentrate on your breathing when you focus on synchronizing your heart beat with the in and out of your breathing.

I would love to hear from anyone who tries this exercise. Please feel free to write with feedback to

Meanwhile, have a good day and stay warm!

May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be filled with lovingkindness.
May you be free from suffering and fear.
May you live with ease.

May all beings be happy.
May all beings be healthy.
May all beings be filled with lovingkindness.
May all beings be free from suffering and fear.
May all beings live with ease.

Thanks once more to Sharon Salzberg for bringing me the gift of her lovingkindness meditation.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Two Inaugurals, Two Messages: This One a Clear, Progressive Vision

By Richard Kirsch

Four years ago, I stood in the cold listening to President Obama’s first inaugural address. I remember it leaving me cold. This year, in the warmth of my den, the president’s clear projection of progressive values as core American values warmed my heart.

I just looked back at Obama’s first inaugural address to see why I found it so disappointing. The speech starts by acknowledging the crisis of 2008, with the economy collapsing and war raging. As required, the president says that America is up to the challenge. The address includes a short list of progressive points on the economy, climate change, and the role of government. But these are interspersed with acknowledgments of the validity of conservative arguments. There is no unifying, values-based narrative or vision.

What a difference from yesterday's address, which starts with the promise of the Declaration of Independence – we are created equal in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness – and then unabashedly extends that to the struggle for civil rights, which Obama has often shied away from being seen as championing. He grounds our 200-year history “through blood drawn by lash, and blood drawn by sword," reminding us that "no union…could survive half-slave, and half-free.”

From there, the president charges directly to the historic role of government in building our physical and human capital. And unlike four years ago – when he first trumpeted the role of free markets and then noted the need for regulation – he says unambiguously, “Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play” and that “a great nation must care for the vulnerable and protect people from life’s worst hazards and misfortunes.”

Even when the president recognizes values shared by progressives and conservatives – skepticism that about central authority and the importance of initiative and personal responsibility – he quickly affirms that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” To meet the future, the president says, will take the kind of things government does – educate children, invest in infrastructure – declaring, “Now more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.”
From there he makes it clear that our economic success is undermined when “a few do very well and growing many barely make it.” Instead, "America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work, when the wages of honest labor will liberate families from the brink of hardship.”
Obama then begins to build a bridge linking the dignity of the individual with the collective, which he expands as his address progresses. The first span of the bridge is to connect the prospects of a “little girl born into the bleakest poverty” with freedom and equality “not just in the eyes of God, but also in our own.” He continues to build the bridge, insisting that in updating government programs, we should aim to “reward the effort and determination of every single American.” He then makes it clear that this includes keeping the “commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security,” which “strengthen us” and “do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this nation great.”
The president then puts forth a values-based linkage of government's role in tackling climate change, refuting climate deniers and linking addressing climate change to our “economic vitality” and natural “national treasure.”
Reaching to a preacher’s eloquence, the president affirms that he is not leaving anyone behind in our national journey. The cadences of “our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts," “our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” “no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote,” “immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity,” and “children from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown” resound with the voice and spirit of Dr. King. The president has built a bridge that links individual initiative and responsibility to oneself and each other with a values-driven role of government that unites our diversity on the American journey.
Progressives need to pay close attention to another bridge Barack Obama has built here. He has integrated often separate strains: identity politics and the politics of government playing a key role in building an economy based on equal opportunity. The more we link those, the more we will create a story about America that commands a lasting majority.
No progressive story of America would be complete without putting movement at its core, which the president does forcefully in his alliterative embracing of “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.” Notably, these reminders come at the end of his discussion of our role in the world, as he links American movements to Dr. King’s proclamation that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.
He doesn’t leave the call for action in the past. His concluding paragraphs clarify that “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.”
The president will need lots of help setting that course over the next four years; surely he’ll be tested to keep to it himself. Our job is to do everything we can to assist him.
Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform. This piece appeared first on Next New Deal, the Roosevelt Institute's blog.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Rejoicing an Icy Pond

I sit here pondering
my pond.
I sit here trying to
find just the right words
to describe
the precise shade of its
icy grey surface.
Not silvery,
except for spots,
at certain angles.
Not pewter,
except now and then
when the light disappears
pewter fits a large patch.

I could say the ice is the
color of an elephant's
hide but then I'd have
to say that doesn't
capture the way the sunlight
plays, skating
across the absolutely
smooth and frozen crust of water.

Why am I so hell bent
on communicating the color
of the pond? Why
am I compelled to freeze into words
the warm excitement I feel staring
out the window at this sight? It
has everything to do with
the light.

Still, I ought to stop trying
to find the right words
and just let my eyes settle
and fill with the beautiful ice.
I move my
mind to the bench and there,
I pull my bathrobe tight and
breathe in
the arctic wind and rejoice
in the pond and the glowing sunlight
which suddenly
turns the surface white
and slightly mirrored.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Human Ways

By Camincha

Domino, he is barely ten weeks old. Vera has been told those weeks equal the age of a teenager, but still, to her, he is only a baby kitten. That’s why when she heard his long, howling meows, she immediately thought, he is in danger. Full of concern, she ran to the window.
There he was, stretched out on the backyard chair enjoying the sunshine, blue skies, roaming clouds. There was Domino, green eyes round as quarters, which made a great contrast with his snow white and charcoal fur. And that smile! If a kitten could smile, he was. Smiling, being friendly, trying to make friends. Not far, the object of his attention was cruising the backyard, a fat, furry cat, nose up in the air.
Just like a human, she laughed out loud. That fat snob wouldn’t even look at you, ha?  Little ten week old! That’s all right, Domino. You’ll learn to recognize them, those human ways.
Meow, meow, meowwwwwwwwww.
Camincha is a pen name for a California-based writer. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Refugee I Rely On, Part One

By Alexander "Sandy" Prisant

My heart and kidney are failing. I may be near the end of the road. And for all the prestigious men of medicine who’ve tended me in six countries over 60 years, it now comes down to this:

The last man who can save my life does not come from a long line of fine physicians, nor generations of Ivy League laureates.

The last man who can save my life is, of all things, one of the resourceful Vietnamese Boat People. One of the harried thousands fleeing by sea to save themselves when the North Vietnamese Army overran South Vietnam in 1975.

If you’re old enough, you’ll recall this short and furious wave of immigration. TV images of frantic Vietnamese vying with the US Embassy staff for an inch of space on the last helicopters leaving the Embassy roof in Saigon. It was a graphic, distressing vision of the final hours in the first war we’d lost in America’s entire history.

But there was a silver lining. Few reached those helicopters, but many of the best and brightest down below scrambled toward the open sea and jumped on anything that would float. 

We didn’t know it at first, but these resourceful victims of war, with their brains and skills would turn out be one of the most valuable waves of immigration for America’s life and economy in the last 100 years.  From rice farmers transported to new paddies in the Sacramento Delta to a future heart transplant surgeon named Si Mai Pham.  By the 1980’s, Vietnamese Americans had higher average incomes than all other major ethnic groups—black, white and Hispanic.

But on that April day in 1975, Si Mai Pham was simply a second-year student at the pharmacy school in Saigon, near the US Embassy. With the North Vietnamese Army beginning to enter the city, he saw first-hand the American helicopters hovering above and his countrymen desperately trying to claw up the Embassy’s fortified walls. He quickly understood that in the chaos of war, his liberty would depend on his wits.

Pham fled toward downtown and wound up at Saigon’s harbor where there was only a single South Vietnamese coast guard vessel docked. He clambered aboard with scores of other civilians. But there was a hitch.  The boat wouldn’t start-- the reason the Vietnamese Navy had left it behind.  The more dexterous of the escapees began working to make repairs with their bare hands.  Over the next six hours, with soldiers and tanks from the North crisscrossing the area, the work on the patrol boat continued.  “There was so much chaos everywhere that even in daylight, the invading soldiers did not understand we were a bunch of Southerners trying to escape,” Pham recalls.

As dusk fell, the engine finally cranked over and the vessel limped out of Saigon harbor with all navigations lights extinguished to avoid capture.  All through the night, it continued aimlessly out into the South China Sea. 

And then the craft slowly began to sink. After a 24-hour nightmare on the open sea, the hungry, thirsty and frightened passengers were saved again, when a South Vietnamese battleship saw the craft and organized a high-risk transfer at sea of all the exhausted escapees.

Without provisions for them, the battleship continued on its own escape from the North Vietnamese, into US hands.  Two days later they reached the US base at Subic Bay in the Philippines. 

But for the civilians, the odyssey lasted at least three days more, as they were shuttled into a huge converted American merchant ship that took them to the island of Guam and a US Air Force base. In all, 5,000 Vietnamese were brought to a simple refugee camp with tents and basic sanitation that had been hastily set up for the wave.

It had taken almost a week to flee across the South China Sea and into the Pacific, but Si Mai Pham without English or family or anything more than the clothes on his back, had become a survivor. For Pham, the adventure was only beginning, but he remembers now, “There was nothing else to do. I had to survive.”

It was still nearly four decades before our paths would cross, but half a world away, I, too, was learning what survival was all about.

Sandy Prisant is a writer living in Florida with his wife Susan. For almost two years now, he has been chronicling his battle with a life-threatening kidney disease in a series called, "The Journey We Take Alone." To read earlier installments of this very compelling story, use the search function below and type in his name. His wife, Susan, has written her own series of equally-compelling stories under the title, "The Journey We Take Together." 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sister Mysteries, Chapter 59: Renata Risks Everything and Returns

Note to readers: Sister Mysteries is an on-line novel about a nun falsely accused of killing her cousin. She managed to escape hanging by running away. So why in this chapter is she is risking everything to come back?

Renata prays the rosary the whole way. The prayers relax her as she keeps Sister Teresa front and center in her mind. What will she find when they arrive at the convent? Will Teresa still be alive?

Arthur pushes the horse as fast as the old road will allow.  But the going is slow, the surface of the road rutted and pocked by holes and sharp rock.

They stop once to water the horse, and a second time, to eat some of the lunch that Renata packed. But soon they are back to the road, and the endless red dust, rising up in clouds. It's a long and jolting ride.

As the sun starts to approach the horizon, the road narrows and starts to descend into the golden valley. Arthur stops and massages the back of his neck with one hand. "I'm feeling a might weary ma'am, so I propose we stop here, take a little rest before we push down into the valley."

"Oh must we?" Renata cries. "We're so close now. And I have such a terrible premonition, I keep fearing that I am going to walk into the convent just after Teresa has...has ...." she shakes her head, sets her forehead against the rosary beads wrapped around her fingers.

"I won't linger, ma'am, I just feel like I need a little nap. It won't be a long sleep I promise."

Renata's eyes brighten. "I know. I can drive the wagon while you rest in back, I've handled a rig this big before."  As Renata glances forward to the horse, she tells herself that this is more or less true, she once drove a smallish cart pulled by a donkey.

"I wish you wouldn't," Arthur replies. "I'd be worrying about you the whole time. The road gets even more narrow from here on descending into this valley."

"Yes, yes, I know very well this road, and this valley, I've walked it so many times. We aren't more than five or six miles from the convent now, I will be fine, I promise  you."  Her voice is calm and strong as she slips the rosary beads into her side pocket and reaches for the reins.

"I won't sleep for long," Arthur says, climbing over the seat into the back and pulling the blanket over him.

Renata squares herself on the wagon seat and pulls up the reins. Then she snaps them sharply, just as she had seen Arthur do so many times.  The horse doesn't move. She snaps the reins again, and a third time.

"He can sense the new driver," Arthur says from the back. "And he can tell we're starting to descend."

Renata gets out of the wagon and approaches the horse. She strokes his ears and whispers lovingly. "We will take good care of you, and feed you carrots and apples when we get to the convent." She rubs his nose and spends a few moments with her arms around his neck. "We've got to get there," she whispers. "It's ever so important."

She climbs back to the wagon seat and this time when she snaps the reins the horse stalls for a moment but then moves forward, picking his way through ruts and rock. The light is still good, so Renata relaxes.  Her mood rises the further they descend toward the convent. At one bend, she realizes that in the far distance is the line of live oaks where she and Teresa would bring their lemonade and blankets after chores were finished.  Her heart begins to race and her face tightens as she wonders what she will find when they get there.

Arthur is snoring from the back of the wagon.  Renata pulls herself up on the seat as the road begins a particularly steep decline. The horse slows.  She snaps the reins but with little effect. The horse is going his pace and that is as fast as they will go.

The sky is now a steely grey blue, the sun melting into the blue hills across the valley. There are pink and orange remnants of sunset in the clouds overhead. Renata has always loved the convent setting, and now she gets a rush of nostalgia for this place that she has missed so deeply these last months while confined to jail.  Her heart beats faster, and she is filled almost to tears thinking of the love she has for all of the sisters, and even for Mother Yolla, despite her often ornery temper.

Arthur is sound asleep as the wagon passes through the final steep portion of the road. By now, Renata is so excited to get there, and so close, that she is tempted to stop the wagon and run the rest of the way, as no matter how much she snaps the reins the horse goes his own slow pace.

The sky overhead is redder than before, the sunset throwing a wondrous show as she sees the adobe steeple of the chapel. She cannot make out the bell, but she can see the dark cross at the top of the steeple.  She can't keep herself contained.

She pulls the reins to a halt and jumps down from the wagon before the horse comes to a full halt. She shakes Arthur awake. "We're here, we're here, I'm going in," she cries, but doesn't wait for a reply. She is racing toward the convent picking her way around the gardens, and the apple trees, and soon she is standing on the back tiled patio where the fountain, absent of water, stands.

And in a moment, she is inside the convent, breathing hard. What she hears first is the clatter of forks and knives against plates. It hadn't occurred to her that she was arriving just in time for dinner.

Trembling, sweaty, out of breath, and still wearing the hat that Arthur loaned her for the trip, she walks slowly into the dining room. Her legs wobble as she raises one hand in greeting.

Eighteen faces, including Teresa's, stare back at her, in varying states of shock.

Teresa rises from her place, her hands on either side of her face. She paces unsteadily around the table to greet Renata. The two embrace and simultaneously descend to their knees, their hands clasped in prayer. The rest of the nuns gather around the two, questions shooting from all directions.

"Where have you been? How did you get back? Why are you here? Don't you fear they'll find you..."

Mother Yolla set her hand on Renata's hat and lifts it off her head. Her hair is a short bristly cut, matted and dirty. But that doesn't stop Mother Yolla from planting a kiss on Renata's crown. "God Bless you my child, God will protect you now that you are here."

Renata, with Teresa's help, stands and lets herself be hugged and kissed by the excited nuns.  Soon she's seated at the table, in her old spot, and a plate and utensils are before her. She holds up her hands.

"I'm in no condition to eat," she says, "not yet." And then she pauses and turns to Mother Yolla. "And I have a friend to get from outside. The man, Arthur, who found me half dead in the high chaparral and let me stay at his cabin. A perfect gentleman who rode me on his wagon to get here."

At that moment, Arthur appears at the door, hat held in two hands. "Good evening, sisters," he says, a tentative smile on his face.  Mother Yolla approaches him and extends a hand.

"God bless you sir, God bless you."

"We'll set another place," Teresa says, disappearing into the kitchen. Renata rises from her seat and follows her. "My dear dear Teresa you are well, you are alive, you are well." Teresa looks confused.

"Yes, of course, why wouldn't I be?" Teresa is puzzled but lets Renata embrace her again.

"I had a dream, a terrible terrible dream, but it seems like it wasn't the sign I thought it was. I was convinced that you were so ill, so ill, that the doctors feared you were dying, I saw all the nuns gathered around you kneeling, and you in the bed, thrashing. I was convinced I would never see you again."

Teresa releases Renata. "My poor sister, I'm so so sorry for your dream. But I am so glad you are here." Teresa's face looks ashen. She looks down to the floor and then engages Renata's gaze once more.

She squeezes Renata's hand and pulls Renata closer. "It's Señora I'm afraid."


"Your dream had me being ill. But it is Señora who suffers. I will take you to her first thing in the morning."

"She is sick, Señora is ill?"

Teresa nodded her head gravely. "I have been with her for the past seven days. She suffered a terrible fever the week before and she was thrashing about and in seizure. Then she fell unconscious. The doctor says it's a coma and she..."Teresa pauses. Inhales. "I'm afraid he's convinced that she may never emerge."

Renata's insides drop. Suddenly she is so tired, so overwhelmed by fatigue that she feels she might collapse right there in the kitchen. She swings around and aims unsteadily for the rocking chair in the corner. But she only makes it half-way before she dissolves onto the floor.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Mindfulness for the New Year

By Diana Raab

I no longer believe in New Year’s Resolutions, because making a resolution is the ticket to breaking it. Actually, someone just suggested to me that resolutions are for those who need goals and have difficulty meeting them. Sometimes, I wish that was me. I am a high achiever, which sometimes forces me to look ahead rather than to live in the moment. So if there was any resolution I choose to make this year, it would be to be more mindful.

A recent issue of Discovery’s Edge, put out by the Mayo Clinic, had an extensive article on the subject of mindfulness, and to me this means that medicine is headed in the right direction. The article focuses on the research and work of Roberto Benzo, M.D., a Mayo Clinic pulmonologist and epidemiologist with an interest in behavioral medicine. His current research involves combining conventional medicine with mindfulness meditation. He claims to have seen changes in his patients by not only decreasing their hospitalizations, but also by making them feel better overall.
Dr. Benzo defines mindfulness as “being completely present and seeing things as they really are, not as we want them to be.” Mindfulness has its origins more than 2500 years ago in Buddhist traditions. The idea is to remain in the moment and not to focus on goals, which so many of us tend to do. Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned Zen monk, and probably one of the most widely known Zen instructors after His Holiness the Dalai Lama, has written many easy-to-understand books addressing the subject of mindfulness. He advocates that “our true home is not in the past. Our true home is not in the future. Our true home is in the here and the now. Life is available only in the here and the now, and it is our true home.” He suggests a simple practice to help us become more mindful, he suggests breathing in. Then say to yourself, “I know that I am breathing in.” Mindfulness, he says, “gives birth to joy and happiness.”
When teaching his patients, Benzo found that when they understand the importance of their role in their own health that they try harder to stay healthy. The Mayo uses wellness coaches to help with the process by teaching patients to be aware of their body’s sensations and movements.
There is no doubt that mindfulness practices reduces stress and pain and as Benzo summaries, “awareness and appreciation of the life that they [the patients] have right now is the key.”
Diana Raab is a Santa Barbara, California-based memoirist, poet and writing instructor whose passion is keeping a notebook. This post originally appeared on her blog, Diana's Notebook, Literary Musings.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Chapter 58, Sister Mysteries: Dear Señora, Please Help Me Finish this Damn Novel!!

Note to readers: Writers need all kinds of help when they are trying to write a novel. They particularly need help -- and inspiration -- as they are finishing writing a book.

With my first novel, I would write poetry to get me writing a new chapter. I wrote dozens and dozens of poems.

With my second novel, I would put on headphones every single day and listen to my guitar teacher's extraordinary flamenco music in order to get inspired.  (The book was about a woman who becomes a flamenco dancer.)

With this book, Sister Mysteries, and its companion novel, Castenata, I've gotten inspiration from a variety of sources. But lately, as I've been trying to zero in on the books' ending, I've gotten stuck. My imagination has iced up just like the weather outside. So today I decided to write one of the characters a letter, asking for help. I chose Señora Ramos, who plays a key role in the novel. Over the many years I've spent writing this book, I've grown very very fond of Señora. She is very kind and loving, and she nurtures Sister Renata like a mother would. Oh, and she also cooks up a terrific tortilla soup.

Dear Señora Ramos,

You have always held the key to the mystery. In my mind, you were the one who came forward in time to knock at my door, saying "Por favor, Claudia, escribe la historia real de la monja Renata." Please, Claudia, write the true story of the nun, Renata.

Way back when I started writing this book, and I kept wondering why it should be written, you (along with Sister Teresa) kept telling me the reason: "Porque es necessario limpiar su nombre." It is necessary to clear her name.

All those years ago now, when the first visions of the novel came to me, when I first saw Renata garbed in the red flamenco dress, tying the black laces on her shoes, smearing her mouth with lipstick, it never occurred to me to ask you another question. An even more important question.

That question is this, "Why ME?" Why was I chosen to clear Renata's name? Why should I be the one to write a book proving that the nun didn't slit her cousin's throat, that she wasn't guilty of murdering Antonie.

I've never asked you that question before, Señora, but now I am asking. I am asking because I must. I am asking you because I am anxious to finish the novel and my imagination is frozen solid, it's as iced up as the kitchen water pipe was this morning when I got up and looked out the window and saw the thermometer holding at six degrees.

Please tell me how I fit into this whole picture? All those years ago (January, 1995) when Renata and Antonie and you too Señora came alive in my mind, I never needed to know. In those days, I didn't question my role. I was a writer who had just completed her first novel, and so I thought, here was the second one. I chalked it up to my writerly inspiration.

How the heck was I supposed to know then that this novel wasn't any ordinary book? That this novel blurred the line between fact and fantasy. That this novel, as much as I've loved it, would haunt me for almost two decades? How could I have known that this novel would take me by the throat and hold on, threatening time and again to strangle me? How could I know then that this was the book straight from hell (or heaven perhaps), the book that would if I let it, drive me completely nuts. (It's come close on numerous occasions.)

Señora, I see you here before me today, standing at the stove. Threads of steel grey hair flutter loose on your temples, hair that has escaped from the bun at the back of your head. I see your white blouse, decorated at the neckline with embroidered flowers. I see your long blue skirt, drawn into gathers at the waist. I see you preparing my favorite meal, tortilla soup, with lots of fresh cilantro.

You stand there stirring the soup while I am sitting in a chair in Antonie's kitchen, waiting for a bowl. And more importantly, waiting for you to answer my question.

But you continue to face the stove. You won't look at me. Even when you ladle up the soup into a wide blue crockery bowl and set it and a spoon and a steaming warm roll at my place at the table, you don't speak.  So I ask again.

"Please tell me Señora. I need to know. I am pleading with you because if I don't know why I'm writing this book, then I am afraid I might not be able to finish it. Even though I've written 35 chapters of Castenata, and 57 chapters of the outer story, Sister Mysteries, I've still got to write the ending to both of these stories and my imagination is a dry well."

I can tell she isn't listening to me. Or maybe it's that she isn't understanding me.  She has very little grasp of English. So now I repeat what I just said, but this time in Spanish.

Instead of answering, you lift your beautiful ivory shawl, it too embroidered with flowers, off the peg on the wall and you wrap the shawl tightly around your shoulders. Then you settle yourself in the rocking chair across from the table. You just sit there rocking, smoothing the embroidered flowers and the long strings of silky fringe. After a while you fold your hands together and bring them to your heart. It almost looks like you are about to say a prayer. But no. You inhale and press your hands to your heart and then you surprise me by asking your own question.

"Chica, tu estás sentado aquí, sí?" Girl, you are sitting here, yes?

I nod.

You shrug. "Así hay su explicación. Nunca te selecionamos, seleccionó tu mismo.  Vino a nosotros, y quisimos tenerle."

Translation: "So there's your explanation. We didn't select you. You selected yourself. You came to us and we were willing to have you."

I am stunned. She is saying is that it was my idea to come to Renata's aid. It was my choice to tell Renata's tale, and to clear her name.

I sit staring into my bowl of soup. Señora's explanation has thrown me for a bit of a loop. Señora may think I volunteered for this responsibility, but in my mind, it was thrust upon me. I never said to myself, "Gee I think I'd like to write a murder mystery that involves a nun who lived back in 1883. I never said I think I'd like to tell the true story." No. it all started simply enough. I happened to hear some flamenco music playing on the radio one winter day while I was lying on the floor doing my leg exercises.  The next thing I knew I had a starkly vivid image of a nun disrobing, changing into a red flamenco dress. Instantly I was pulled in. Immediately, I was intrigued to follow this nun, Renata, and her crazy cousin, Antonie.

My tortilla soup is getting cold. But now that I have ahold of Señora's attention, I want to ask her another question that I've never asked before. "Desde que tu vives a través de estos eventos, Señora me puede decir lo que le sucede a Renata en 1883. Por favor, digame, ella colgar de Antonie de asesinato?"

Translation: Since you lived through these events, Señora, you can tell me what happened to Renata in 1883. Please tell me, did she hang for Antonie's murder?

Señora cocks her head to one side, almost as if she is readying herself for a nap. She looks exceedingly sad, but she closes her eyes and refuses to speak. I repeat my question, but she just shakes her head back and forth very slowly, and raises her hands and presses them together. This time she sets them over her lips, again looking as though she might be ready to say a prayer. But she says nothing.

I don't want to give up. I'm having such a hard time figuring out how to write the ending of the story that I absolutely want and need her help. "Por favor Señora, digame, porque es muy importante."

She stops rocking. She stares into her hands, which have now dropped back into her lap.  Her words are crisp and sharp and to the point. "Lo que pasó, pasó. El pasado es el pasado. Todos nos preocupamos por ahora es que ella se borra del crimen." She pauses. "Y ahora, estory cansado, así que tomo mi siesta, espero que les guste la sopa."

Señora shuffles out of the kitchen leaving me with my questions. What had she said? "Whatever happened, happened. The past is the past. All we care about now is that she is cleared of the crime. I'm tired now, so I will take my siesta, I hope you enjoy the soup."

I eat the soup slowly, savoring the taste, and wondering how I will ever figure out the ending to this book.