The retreat that pushed me forward

Attending my first in-person writing retreat after the pandemic was like a dream. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators had been forced to hold virtual events for the past two years. This year we were back. A few weeks ago, twenty-five writers, editors, and agents met in the San Jacinto Mountains face to face.

We slept in tiny cabins at Tahquitz Pines Conference Center in Idyllwild, California. Our meetings were held at a lodge nestled in the tall trees. The weather was perfect for hiking, 70s in the daytime, 50s at night. Meals were served in a cafeteria. Staying there evoked memories of childhood summer camp.

During four magical days, I fellowshipped with other writers. Real people like me who sit in front of a computer and type out stories. A few still wore masks, a lingering reminder of the past two years. At first, it felt awkward sitting and talking to people, but as days passed, it seemed like COVID never happened.

The days leading up to the retreat, I was terrified. I was bringing a brand-new story to my critique sessions, raw in its first draft. During Zoom critiques, I could turn off my camera if I didn’t want anyone to see my reactions.  Now I sat at a round table under the gaze of six other writers and an editor. Nowhere to hide. Then I noticed everyone else seemed a little nervous, too. We were all eager to share our work yet afraid it was not enough.

Once we started, it grew easier. We became invested in each other’s characters. We celebrated beautiful imagery and clever dialogue. We discussed how the story could be improved.

Outside the four critique sessions, we had time to stretch our socialization legs. Some worked on revisions in the lodge. Others hiked the forest around us. A few rested in their cabins.

We ate together. We shared. We laughed.

We highlighted. We questioned. We encouraged.

And when our days were completed, I drove back down the mountain to my normal life. Not alone revising my story for the tenth time, but part of a supportive group that lifts me up above the silent negativity that slays books before they’re written.

That’s how a retreat can push you forward.

The Unreached Mountain

After our first Jeep trip to the Salton Sea, I thought our Wrangler was invincible. My husband, Frank, and I rode through sand, rocks, ditches, and narrow squeezes as easy as driving the freeways of Southern California. Sometimes even at the same slow speed.

The next trip we camped near Anza-Borrego State Park. The other four-wheelers with us had brand new Broncos and a 2003 tricked-out Rubicon. We were a little outclassed. Our 2004 Wrangler had 32” tires but otherwise was stock. However, we weren’t too concerned. The trails we planned were considered “easy” and “moderate.”

A few hours into the ride, Frank and I sat eating sandwiches inside our Jeep looking up with regret at our crew perched on the mountain.

Our day started out easy enough. Our group of four vehicles entered the windswept sandstone canyon and followed a creek bed. At first, we saw regular motorhomes and four-wheel drive trucks camped under the shade of the canyon walls. Other Jeep groups and single off-roaders passed by on this main part of the trail. I wouldn’t have camped there with all that billowing dust.

As the canyon walls closed in on us, we still saw a few Jeeps and trucks with popup tents on top of them. Full camping kitchens were balanced on rocks. People sat under EZ up canopies to block out the unrelenting sun. The trail became narrow with sharp rocks that poked out of the sand, waiting to pierce our tires.

We kept up with the rest of our group despite our lower stance. Jeff, our experienced leader, turned off the main trail and headed up a side wash. The rocks were a hand’s touch from the sides of our vehicles, especially the wider Broncos. We crawled over the boulders and inched past the protruding edges of the canyon walls.

The trail turned sharply to the left. A sandy trail led straight up the face of a cliff. There were many tire tracks showing the success of others before us. We all stopped and allowed each vehicle to climb the mountain alone in case they had to back down and try again.

Jeff in his Rubicon made it up there easily. Then one of the Broncos scaled it. It was our turn. Frank adjusted his gears and gave it some gas. I hung on and closed my eyes. We bounced up to the top. I turned toward our dogs in the back, and our border collie, Davey, had a wild look in his eyes. Our beagle, Harley, was buried in the seat.

Our group joined several Jeeps that were parked on a flat mesa overlooking the mountains and desert. We got out and took a break, talking about our next move. Should we go down and try another branch of the canyon? Above us was another trail that went up onto a sandstone ridge. I could see a few Jeeps parked up there. We decided that would be our lunch stop.

Jeff found the trail leading up and we followed slowly. The side of the cliff was deep soft sand with patches of rock. Frank and I got stuck a couple of times and had to drop back and try it again. One last section remained before the top.

Jeff parked and stood out on a rock with his radio so he could spot us. Our first Bronco went up and got stuck. Jeff gave him directions on the radio, and with a few adjustments he was up the hill. From our viewpoint, his wheels were all twisted different directions as he clung to the uneven surface.

It was our turn.

Starting on soft sand made it hard to get up the speed we would need. Frank threw it in low gear and we shot up. Near the lip there were several deep ditches close together. We hit the first one.

Clunk! Spin! We were stuck. Frank threw it in reverse and tried it again. Clunk! Spin! Jeff offered suggestions which we tried unsuccessfully.

We were too low to navigate the ditches.

Frank backed down and found a place out of the way of the other Jeeps coming behind us. The last Bronco in our group made it up the hill. I stepped outside to give the dogs a break, but heat radiated off the deep sand and the dogs were not interested. We decided to stay inside and eat our lunch.

After a while, Jeff radioed us that the group was coming back down. We joined them and completed the rest of the trip.

Were we disappointed? Yes. Were we embarrassed? Not really. Our friends are people we’ve ridden Harleys with for years. There was no condemnation. You ride your own ride.

Back at camp, we talked about our favorite parts of the day. Red rock sculptures and vast desert vistas unseen by regular roads. Old rusted minecart trestle covered in bright colored graffiti. Groups of people gathered to shoot their guns at a desolate mountain. A tiny bar filled with thirsty off-roaders.

Tomorrow we would go back to our regular lives, but for this weekend we were explorers and adventurers.

And I would have to complete a few more days of substitute teaching to pay for upgrades to our Jeep.

Blustery Days

I hate wind!

I hate how it makes my hair flat and full of static electricity. I hate how it pushes pollen up my nose so that I sneeze all day. I hate how it makes a sunny day feel cold.

But I’m not the only one who hates wind.

My border collie puppy hates wind. Terrified by scuttling dry leaves, he stops and assumes his watchdog face, certain a murderer is creeping up behind us on the way to the park.

Trees hate wind. My street is lined with 70-year-old Chinese Elm trees. When the wind blows, parked cars get hit by falling branches. Happened to me twice in one year. One day I came down the street to discover it completely blocked by a gigantic limb.

Umbrellas hate wind. I’ve lost a few outdoor table ones during windstorms. Later I found them battered and broken, upside down in my neighbor’s back yard.

Californians hate wind that whips up wildfires.

It is said, “If you sow the wind, you’ll reap the whirlwind.”

I don’t know who’s been planting wind, but I sure wish they’d stop it.

The dog beach

The shy March sun caressed my bare shoulders as we waded through dry sand. I held our beagle’s leash firmly even though we were on the dog beach. It was Harley’s first experience around other off-leash dogs. She stayed at my side, her brown eyes wide and her tail hooked down in the question mark position.

The shoreline was a flurry of activity. Dogs dashed past into frothing waves. Owners threw frisbees and balls. Tails wagged and rear ends were sniffed. My husband and I found a spot at the edge of the wet sand and set up our chairs. I held my breath and unhooked Harley’s leash, wondering if she would run off. She cowered behind my chair.

The sky was brilliant blue and clear of clouds, although helicopters made regular appearances as they monitored the coastline. The sand and breeze were cool, balancing out the relentless rays of the sun. Not quite swimsuit weather for me, although some of the other beach goers didn’t shy away from them.

A white Lab trotted over to check us out. His friendly face convinced us to allow him to approach Harley. Our beagle froze in place while the dog sniffed her. Whew! We made it through one encounter.

To our left, someone had left their towel and bad in the sand while they were at the water. Two dogs came up to sniff around it. One raised his leg. A woman in a bikini shouted at them and they scattered. Harley watched intently.

Another group of dogs flew past us and circled around to that same towel and bag. Barking madly, Harley jumped up and raced over there to chase them off. I called her and she returned, proud of herself.

It was a pleasant morning watching dogs enjoy themselves. Smiling and panting, soaked with sea water, they raced up and down the water line. The owners actively supervised their dog children to prevent fights. Harley didn’t join in, but she watched.

After a few hours, our pink skin convinced us we’d had enough sun for the day. As I clipped on Harley’s leash, she held me with her sad eyes. We walked toward the Jeep, half-dragging her with us.

Maybe next time she’ll be ready to join the fun.

Two Wheels to Four-Wheel Drive

When my husband was forced to sell his Harley, it seemed like the end of the world. The Harley world had been family to us. Our access to adventure and fellowship were suddenly taken away like a thief breaking into our garage. But this thief was chronic illness, cruel and relentless. Slowly over the years, my husband lost the strength and energy to safely ride a motorcycle. Our riding days were over.

How could we replace roaring down back roads viewing God’s art galleries of nature? Swapping stories with other riders in tiny diners only bikers know about?

We bought a 2004 Jeep Wrangler, bright yellow, that we named Digger.

Some of our Harley friends also had off road vehicles so we planned a weekend trip to the Salton Sea. They invited other Jeep friends and suddenly we had a new group to ride with. Following their motorhome down to the desert felt a little like the HOG rides we’d taken in the past.

The first day we set up at the campground and met the others who would ride with us the next day. In the morning, my husband let out enough air out of Digger’s tires so that we could travel the sand without getting stuck. When it was time, we lined up behind the other Jeeps. One of the experienced Jeepers rode “sweep” like on a Harley group ride. We turned off the main road and hit the dirt.

Slowly. Definitely not at the pace of a Harley.

It’s a different world when you leave the asphalt. Tire tracks in the sand were our only street signs. Instead of cars and trucks competing for highway space, we had to share the dry riverbeds with Razors and ATVs.

The incredible scenery rivaled a Harley ride.

I snapped photos of bat caves, abandoned railroad trestles, and even a palm tree oasis. I held my breath as we climbed a steep hill to reach raised railroad tracks. Our beagle in the back seat covered her eyes, unlike our border collie who watched the road eagerly. The wood and iron from the railroad tracks had been cleared away, leaving the flat gravel surface. The trail was only as wide as a train, with steep drop-offs on either side. It reminded me of a Utah highway we rode with our Harley.

As we followed the railbed, I snapped pictures from our elevated position over the desert. After a while, we encountered mounds of soft dirt piled up on the tracks to prevent off road vehicles from going any further. That didn’t stop our leader. His Jeep was lifted much higher than ours, and for a moment my heart fluttered. Would we get stuck on the top of the dirt pile?

Of course that was an incentive for my husband. As we reached the top of the dirt, I heard a soft swushing under our Jeep, but we made it back down the other side. I started breathing again.

Riding off road can be jarring especially on some of well-traveled trails that have been worn down into washboard ruts. Our Jeep jerked back and forth so much I had to brace myself against the center console and the door. Riding on our Ultra Limited had been much smoother. We dipped down into ravines so deep I was positive we were going to end up planted headfirst in the bottom. But our trusty Jeep climbed in and out of them like it was a regular road.

One thing I learned—the desert is not flat.

On the way back to the campground, we traveled down a canal access road that was gravel but well maintained. That was welcome relief.

When we reached our motorhomes, my friend and I headed to the mineral springs at the resort. We soothed our tight muscles as the sun set into the desert night. My brain appreciated not being jiggled for a while.

Later by the propane campfire, we devoured steaks, potatoes, and corn roasted on the grill. We shared stories and learned more about the new Jeep people we had met. My husband was tired, but it was well worth it.

We may have lost Harley adventures, but we had gained a new world to explore off the paved road.

Perfect World

It was difficult for Lola to decide whether she wanted to be a dancer or a painter when she graduated from college.

“Why choose at all?” her guidance counselor said with a smile. “Take both the Dance and Art placement tests. You can double major at university and then apply for a split career. Young people do it all the time. Then when your superior talent emerges, you can go full time in your strength.”

Lola loved ballet. Most of her high school classes were either studying its history or experiencing the dance itself. Even her science classes involved kinesthetics and the physics involved in dance. But when sixth period came, she took off her ballet shoes and emersed herself in the joy of oil painting. She loved drawing and painting the human body. Her high school hired models (dressed in swimwear of course) so that students could draw from life. They studied anatomy along side color theory.

Their president was an artist too. Dr. Hansen was responsible for the laws making jobs for musicians, artists, writers, and dancers. When children were seven, they were tested for creativity. If they showed some talent, they were encouraged to take special classes. When they were seniors in high school, they took a test in their ability which would determine which university they would attend.

After completing their university degree, creatives could apply for important government positions. Since the government paid the performers, citizens could attend concerts and performances for free. Anyone could apply for a mural to be painted on the wall of their home or a portrait done of their family.

Lola’s mother was a children’s book writer, and her father was a saxophone player. But ever since she could walk, Lola danced her way through life. She should choose dance for college.

After hanging up her toe shoes on the rack, she looked down at her computer. Maybe she should video call Becky, her cousin, who still lived on Earth. Becky and her mom, Lola’s dad’s sister, came out to visit every year. She’d known Becky her whole life and chatted with her frequently.

Lola checked the clocks over her desk. The one on the left was Pacific Standard Earth time. It was only 9:00 pm there. Becky would still be awake.

“Hey, Lola! What’s up?” On Lola’s screen, Becky’s hair was rolled up in a cap to keep her waves, and she was in her pink unicorn pajamas.

“I hope I didn’t wake you up,” Lola said. It wasn’t even dinner time yet on Mars.

“No, I was still working on my algebra homework,” Becky squinched up her nose to show what she thought about advanced mathematics. “What are you up to?”

“I have to fill out my test application,” Lola said with a groan. “I can’t decide whether to choose dance or art. What do you think I should do?”

Becky chewed her lip. “Wow! I only wish I had that problem. You are so lucky to live on a planet that lets you pursue creativity. As you know, I love dance as much as you do, but Mom can’t afford dance lessons for me. As soon as I graduate, I’m off to work at her dad’s office. No more dancing for me!”

Lola sighed. Not for the first time, she wished Becky and her mom had signed up for the Mars colony. Creatives on Earth had to work boring service jobs to support themselves. What little time they had left after work and family was all they had for their creative pursuits.

“I’m so sorry, Becky. But which one should I choose?”

Her cousin tipped her head, narrowed her eyes, and then opened them wide. “Dance, silly! Dance is your first love!”

“Thanks, Becky. I’ll let you go. I hear Mom calling me.”

After dinner, Lola went to the testing website and filled out the application for the Dance Aptitude Test. Then she took her shower and went to bed. She put on some Mozart to help her relax and nestled under her blankets. She fell asleep dreaming about her future.

#

Lola’s alarm went off and she rolled over to hit the snooze button. Was it the weekend yet? She still hadn’t finished her Advanced Writing assignment, and it was due first period. She groaned and rolled out of bed. She’d have to write it before she left for school.

As she grabbed her sweater and backpack, she glanced over at her toe shoes hanging on a hook by her desk and frowned. She missed ballet. It had been her life for five wonderful years.

When her dad left them, her mom put her foot down and insisted Lola stop dancing. She needed to start focusing on her grades so she could get a college scholarship. A business degree was the only acceptable path since most corporations that offered benefits and pensions required their managers to have at least a bachelor’s degree in business.

What would it be like to live in a world where dancers could work as dancers instead of receptionists?

She made herself a smoothie and sat down with her laptop. The prompt was to write about what she thought would make a perfect world. In the back of her mind, she felt the tickle of an idea. Something she had been dreaming about last night. Her fingers flew over the keyboard.

“It was difficult for Lola to decide whether she wanted to be a dancer or a painter when she graduated from college.”

Light: One Word for 2022

When I was still teaching, a lifetime ago but really just last year, during a staff meeting we used to choose One Word for the upcoming year. Not a resolution. Not a pledge to eat healthy or exercise more. One Word to keep us on the path. One Word to remind us of what is important when life gets messy.

My One Word has changed over the years, including choices like hope, revise, write, and appreciate. This year I chose light.

In this never-ending darkness of sickness and hate, I want to be light. Switchfoot, a San Diego band I’ve loved since the 1990s, says it like this—“Your wounds are where the light shines through.”

2021 was a year of extremes. Losing friends. Gaining grand twins. Crushing weight of teaching during a pandemic and then retirement. Progression of my husband’s chronic illness. Enjoying nature through camping. Rejection emails from potential literary agents. A disability settlement for my husband. More time to write.

For 2022, I want to reflect light to others around me. I want to choose light for myself and my family. There will still be darkness this year, but light destroys darkness. Instead of dwelling on my losses, I will focus on what I can do. In the light, it is easy to see your loved ones. In the light, it is easy to find your joy.

I hope you choose your One Word for 2022. May it be a cheerleader reminding you of your reflections on a dark day at the end of December.

I will be living in the light this year.

Not a creature was stirring

It’s Christmas Eve, and the rain hasn’t stopped since yesterday morning.

A few days ago, it was the shortest day of the year. I felt like it was time to go to bed at 4:30 pm. The darkness encroaches even further into daylight hours with this storm. Usually in December, we still have brilliant sunshine. Maybe this is what it feels like to live places where they have a real winter.

I know I’m not supposed to complain about rain when our whole state has been in a drought for years. It’s a joy to turn off my sprinklers. But rain raises the stakes for my daughter crossing the Grapevine down from Northern California. Our grandkids might get snowed in up in the San Bernardino Mountains. I won’t be able to seat some of my Christmas brunch guests outside by the pool. Complications I usually don’t have to consider.

Other places in California that are still recovering from wildfires will now have flooding and mudslides. Fortunately, that doesn’t affect our town, but we remember those displaced people in our prayers.

If rain brings nature’s renewal, I welcome it. Too bad this year with its continuing troubles couldn’t be washed away with the rain as well. It will be cozy to sit by the fireplace and sip hot cocoa. I can see the twinkling Christmas lights through the eyes of my seven-month-old grand twins.

It’s Christmas Eve. A quiet one this year but a refreshing deep breath as we turn the page to next year.

Christmas Cookie

Rain pounded on the roof. I measured out flour and salt into a metal bowl. My kitchen was ablaze with light as the storm stole all daylight. In a larger bowl, I mixed butter and sugar. The dogs whined as they needed to go outside but being California born, they didn’t trust going out in the rain. I sent them outside anyway. After I creamed the butter and sugar with my hand mixer, I added eggs and vanilla. Although wind rattled the windows, it was warm and cozy in our house. I hoped the heater would not break down this year. It was time to ease in the dry ingredients a little at a time. Outside my kitchen window, water streamed off our tin patio roof and into the eager flower beds. At least we wouldn’t need the sprinklers for a while. No need to waste water in a drought.

I spooned the dough into my cookie press, chose a shape disc, and replaced the end of the cylinder. Squeezing the dough through the tube created precise patterned cookies on the baking sheet. The rain beat down harder but for now the roof didn’t leak. I shook some colored sugar over the raw dough. It would be a miracle if my Amazon Christmas gifts were delivered in this storm. The baking sheets went into the oven, and I set the timer. When the time was right, I would pull out beautiful, delicious sugar cookies. After they cooled, I would wrap them up in tins and give them to my friends at Christmas.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve been measured by others and whipped around by them. Squeezed through difficult times of my life. Sprinkled with sweet words when I felt raw. Trapped in fiery trials like in a hot oven. But when the time was right, I was brought out of the heat, beautifully shaped and full of sweetness. Ready to share.

Let your life be a Christmas cookie to someone.