Through the Trapdoor.

Get ready. Do you want to reach deep inside? Find the areas and themes that make your writing uniquely yours? Try this. Over and over. Random lists of nouns. No editing. Free write. Nouns. Word associations. Just write. Try it. Over and over. Put the lists aside and come back when ever you doubt your own voice. Try it.

 

1.

Tomboy. Dirt. Cows. Boys. Rules. Why? Why? Dad. Bedroom. Mum. Darkness. Waves. Camping. Trucks. Boys. Tools. Yes. Why? Jeans. Scruffy. Dirt. Cows. Patty. Why? Not.

2.

Female. Femme. Butch. Tires. Trucks. Fix it. Talk. Tellings. Beer. Drama. Girls. Pain. Drama. No. Dreams. Nightmares. Outside. Failed. Failed. Why? Dead. Gone.

3.

Rovers. Community. Passion. Talking. Tools. Girls. Boys. Camera. Bodies. Shapes. Lighting. Too much. Details. Seats. Engine. Leafsprings. Bears. Dogs. Family. Friends.

4.

Camping. Woods. Bears. Why? Fire. Food. Quiet. Calm. Sleep. Stevie. Dogs. Gods. Fire. Leaves. Wind. Window. Reading. Writing. Food. Beer. Calm. Quiet. Finally.

5.

Nightmares. Coma. Choices. Decisions. Christmas. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beer. Beer. Beer. Books. Read. Hide. Pubs. Hospitals. Nightmares. Mum.

6.

Camping. Fields. Trees. Decisions. Fires. Food. Camping. Vans. Trucks. Tents. Beetle. Dogs. Cats. Camp. Out. Away. Smiles. Hide. People. Less. More. Me. Me. Found. Peace. Smiles. Hide. Out. Side.

 

 

 

 

This #1

It’s not as expected, this apartment. It’s in a basement. To look out the windows, I have to stand up. The dogs see only fake wood paneling. The cat sits on the windowsill, unhappy to be trapped inside. I can’t breathe. The landlady shows us around, quite the good cheerleader, and nodding and smiling, I suppress a panic. What can I say? We’re outdoor dogs, even Little Stevie, or should I call him Cat Stephen now that he’s an adult? Go deep, I tell myself all the time, go deeper. That doesn’t mean into a basement.
In my twenties, I worked for a metal worker in Santa Fe. Taken by the piles of steel in the yard, the shapes and weight, the sounds of the mig welder and that raw sharp smell of the grinder, I walked in, scruffy as usual, looking the part already. Within a short conversation, my unskilled self had an internship with Flip. I worked with him mostly, but helped Larry, the tall twiggy owner, by spraying polyurethane and paint onto finished lamps, tables and gates, sniffing deeply in the afternoon thunderstorms. Flip, or Phillip to his parents, was a stocky thick set local, blackened by the work, and with a huge laugh that flew out of him like a startled rabbit, Flip had ways to box people on first impressions.

“You’re an outdoor dog. There are indoor dogs and outdoor dogs. You belong outside.” Flip chuckled, as he looked me up and down, both of us a similar age and height. “Yep. Don’t be fooled. You’ll not be happy with a desk job. So, anyway, if you can carry that angle iron, the ten-footer over, I’ll set it up for you to grind the edges smooth before I tack weld it to the rest of the framework. Got it?”
Yes, an outdoor dog. Still scruffy, I sit in this basement apartment and plan an escape. It’s been three nights. I can’t do it. This dungeon will kill my spirit, my energy and me. Each night, I close the computer, try to read, and hope for night to fall so I can sleep and start again. Count down to moving out. It’s four o’clock, the rain thunders against the window, the lights are all on, and for a summer’s afternoon, it’s a dark cold afternoon down here. Can I go back to bed? Please? Yes, it’s been three nights. I drove over 2450 miles from New Mexico to move here, into a ‘downstairs apartment with windows overlooking the lawn’ and technically, that’s what I have here but –

But. I see the lawn at eye level. Harold and Rosie admire the fake wood flooring. Stevie makes his escape and sits under a shed by the van. With coffee in hand, I head out with the dogs who run for the trees and lift legs with glee. The clouds hang low over the pines and the many other tall deciduous trees that I no longer recognize after a lifetime in the Southwest. Breathing deeply, I crouch down onto my haunches, sip coffee and watch the trucks and cars fly by on this busy highway. What have I done now? Oh shit. I wanted a challenge. This might be too much. Not a quitter, there has to be a way. A ladder up and out of this dark pit. The mozzies find me and after a shuffle to the van for another layer of pure DEET, I sit back down and consider the options. Harold and Rosie ask to sit in the van, a Dodge conversion van that I’d stripped out and installed with a platform bed, some drawers, stocked with clothes and a basic kitchen set-up, for three pets and myself to drive slowly cross country. It’s a better home than this. Can we simply move back in? Yeah, why not. It’s home. Fuck it. I’ll live in a van.
So what’s so bad about a dungeon? I mean, a basement? Claustrophobia. Depression. Panic attacks. Trouble breathing. Trouble eating. Eyes flicker. Heart races. Blood pounds. Clammy neck. Feet sweat. Trouble waking. Trouble sleeping. Lack of creativity. Lack of room to move. Lack of windows to stare out of as I write and sketch. Lack of light. Did I mention panic attacks? Oh, yes, well, more of those. I can’t do it. I can’t. I can’t.

The coffee is done, time for more. Not one of the critters will come back inside. As I wait for the kettle to boil in this kitchen with no windows, I mentally write a list of my ideal place.

  • Pet-friendly
  • Walks and gardens for critters to explore
  • Under $600
  • Two vehicle parking
  • Well-lit, sunshine, windows, all that good stuff for outdoor dogs
  • Heat and internet included
  • Space and quiet to write and draw

The basics.

Within two days, I’m offered a few places. One is so far out of my budget that I don’t bother checking. The other two appeal. Most of the boxed checked positively, and so with hope, I load up the van with dogs, trick Stevie into the dungeon with wet cat food and a taste of cream. Then we go a looking. Fingers crossed. Toes unstuck from fake floor, I clean myself up quickly but not thoroughly. The usual.

“Up the first street at the lights in town, left after four miles, across the dam and past the pond, drive 1.8 miles and I’ll the first home on the left,” says Carol.
The drive was refreshing, the lake tempting, and with hope in me, we parked outside a single story home in the trees on five acres. Yep. I could do this.

Yes. I can do this. Carol’s dog is a sweetheart, a shy timid Collie rescue called Jim. She’s a forthright, messy and friendly woman of a similar age to me. We get along great, easy conversation, but the room is small even though it has good windows facing south. Carol chats away as she tells me of the room she’d make for me, emptying this shelf, this table, this box, yes, the place is cluttered. “I haven’t had roommates for about six years though, so let me think about this again. Women of a certain age…”

Yes, she said that to describe me. Me! Really, I only just turned fifty dammit, and it’s already begun? Wow. Not a good wow.

“Up County Road, past the Corner store that is also a post office and a pub, head another few miles when it turns to dirt and you’ll see a log cabin set off the tracks a ways,” says Anne.

The road to Anne’s is through open agricultural land, farms, log homes, up and through the trees and past the store. I stop in and poke around the shelves, ones full of healthy dried goods, quality coffee beans, fresh veggies, and beer. In the back is a tavern that’s open four evenings a week with live local music. I like this place. They are looking for help. Hmm…

Anne’s on the deck sweeping off a few leaves. Her shitzu pup wanders over to meet mine and tails wag as Anne laughs, a hearty booming breath up to the skies. She’s a full soft woman of a ‘certain age’ like me, yes I said it, and we hit it off. She shows me her apartment. It’s a dungeon. Even worse than where I am now. I stifle the panic and climb up and out, staring at my camper van with longing. Yep, fuck it, we’ll live in the van.

“I can’t do it. I’m sorry.” I explain the fear and terrors that come with dark and closed in spaces. Hands twitch and heart races within my one and only clean tee shirt; humidity kills laundry. Fear does too.
“Well, would you like a coffee any way?”

In the kitchen, we prop ourselves against counters and keep chatting. It’s a shame that the apartment is down in the ground, not even one window to sit at except from the toilet. I know. I know…who could live like that? Not me obviously. Nor my critters.

Anne and I chat about writing, college, and animals. Her big dog died last fall. Her old cat soon after. After mentioning Cat Stephen, Anne shows me a cat door, mudroom for the litter box, and when we put away the now empty coffee mugs, she takes a breath.

“Do you need your own space? What about sharing this home?” She grins cautiously.

“Why? What do you have?” Messy hope slips against grainy hope to live in a nurturing home like this. If only.

Upstairs are two bedrooms in the roofline of this log home. One end of the house is hers, a master bedroom and a bathroom. The other corner has two small rooms looking out onto her twelve acres, a field full of apple trees, and there’s even falling down wooden shed in the meadow that needs help, perhaps for chickens she offers.

“I’m sorry but the curtains don’t close, it’s very bright in here. Too much for me. And in this room,” she shows me the other one, “this room was my crafts and books and storage. You could have both rooms, if you like. This could be a writing studio. If it’s not too bright.”

Looking out of the window, I breathe and imagine sitting up here with a desk and laptop, reading and writing, watching the dogs play in snow as Stevie sits in an apple tree.
“Yes. This is perfect. This.”

Taking Dad To Guatemala in 2005

This is a short piece I wrote years ago but since it’s Father’s Day, I thought I’d share it. I miss him. I miss Mum. Gran. Nan. Viv. My family. Days like this, the pre-made duty filled days are hell on me. Oh well, right? Carry on. Carry on. I am British after all. 

LAST DAYS

BRITISH AIRWAYS offered her tea, milky with sugar. The taste made her relax back into the window seat, knowing that the first thing her mum would do is put the kettle on.

She had found herself telling complete strangers in Antigua, that colonial city where she waited for the trip back to England. In the clothes shop on Sixth avenue, to the west of the central park, she looked through racks of women’s’ trousers and blouses.

“These aren’t the things I know how to buy,’ she was muttering to herself when the lady offered to help. They spoke in Spanish with Louise describing the need for black, for baggy yet formal if possible.

“My dad died.”

The silence though inevitable was not awkward but natural, as the lady looked at Louise and touched her briefly on the shoulder. She understood. Louise said nothing else as the wave of sudden belief shredded the calm she hidden within. Tears came fast, and she took refuge in the dressing room.

Her dad had lived vicariously through her over the last few years. He had researched the places she expressed an interest in visiting, sending long emails full of statistics and anecdotes of the social, political and economic history she would encounter there. Then he sent poems in Spanish as she arrived in Central America, clippings from the Guatemalan national newspapers about the children’s’ plight and poverty. And she wrote weekly of the families she’d talked to, the kids she’d befriended, putting individual names and faces to the facts he would discover for them both.

Antigua is the centre of tourism and Spanish language schools in Guatemala. Louise had learnt a weeks’ worth of grammar before leaving to stay at a smaller village on Lake Atitlan, a few hours away. To be honest, her dad had suggested at least three weeks of school, but Louise was never the scholar her dad is, was…On the Friday at the end of her first week in classes in over fifteen years, her mind crept forward into a game of table tennis, counting and losing over and over to Jose, the teacher.

Antigua is a beautiful city, and when they wrote to each other he mentioned the architecture of the twelfth century, and asked after the three volcanoes surrounding the town of forty thousand. Louise though had found the shoeshine boys and homeless Mayan girls to chat to, juggle with, and play chase around the grassy plazas where tourists and locals alike spent their afternoons. Architecture was not her focus.

Louise had arrived back to Antigua reluctantly drawn from the safe little haven of San Marcos on the lake, stunned and alone. Her dad had died suddenly, unexpectedly. And now she had to fly home, to be there, with her mum, with her brother and his family, see the cousins and aunts and uncles. Her dad had been friend to all, the funny intelligent and compassionate friend they turned to with questions. He fed them with stories and facts and good advice but rarely an easy answer. The thought that he had gone, died, left forever was inescapable yet lingered distant. Numb she sat on the rooftop of Casa Leon’s hostel. Rather out of character she smoked, staring out over the cafes, the narrow cobbled streets, the terracotta plastered adobe homes and private courtyards. Under her unfocused gaze life carried on. Stoned, she still had no appetite beyond memories of Sunday lunches with the family, a ritual she’d hated at the time.

Louise sat alone, in a distant city remembering her brother crying over the phone, telling her that their dad had died in his sleep. A week before. Her knees had given way; she fell to the floor at Stacy’s home, clutching the phone to her ear, not quite knowing what was happening. Mike told her again and again. Then he cried that she was alone without family to hold her, help her. But Stacy stood close, ready for Louise to turn to her, there for her. The baby had been whisked away by Catarina. Pedro had taken off to care for the store. Stacy waited for Louise.

She was not alone, not quite.

On the rooftop, in Antigua she was utterly alone, more than she had ever realised. Daddy’s little girl. The smoke dwindled as she forgot what she was doing, the thoughts of the last letter he’d sent her, about her publishing an article for the first time. His pride and encouragement meant everything to her, particularly today.

Reluctantly yet glad to have another distraction, she took a yellow woven shoulder bag and walked towards the market by the bus station. The streets were busy, well it was a Saturday, and she bumped into an American couple she knew from Panajachel village, at the lake. A quick chat, nothing said of note, Louise didn’t want to tell them, avoided their sympathy unlike at the travel agents earlier, or at the bank, or on the bus with Shane, she had told random people all day until just then. So Louise smiled, made some joke or other and then left to hide in the anonymity of the crowded market.

Tall and fair-haired could she ever be anonymous though? Breathing in the chaos, colours and comforts of this Guatemalan market, Louise found how much she was at home here after four months. She was no longer intimidated by the sensory overload nor frustrated by the languages. The men wore western clothes, trousers and tee shirts, stood and talked to the other vendors. The Mayan women wore traditional dresses of hand-made fabric, all brightly coloured with the designs of their villages. They were normally a bit gruff with the tourists but for once saw something in Louise, and so unusually they reached out to her often, talked as to a regular customer, and gave free extras of avocadoes and bananas. Louise walked, talked, and acted as if nothing had changed. But from now on her life would be defined by this moment. These days alone then the weeks of funeral and mourning with the family in England.

She bought a few gifts for the nieces and nephews from the crafts vendors inside the hall, multi-coloured bracelets and little bags. For her mum it was a different matter.

What do you by someone who just lost their best friend of forty years?

Walking back through the central park Louise sat on a bench, watching sprawling colourful families enjoy the afternoon warmth of springtime. Above her, a cherry blossom tree swung heavy branches saturating the air with memories of their farmhouse in Worcestershire. Those were the times when her mum’s bum would stick out of the overgrown lilac shrubs as she weeded, and dad would always hum to himself as he trimmed the privet hedge near by. She’d hated it at the time.

“Laundry. I must not forget the damn laundry.” She put the book down. It was boring anyway, simply a result of the last minute grabbing of something in English from Stacy’s house on the way out. On the way to catch the boat, to get to the bank, to pay for a ticket, to catch the bus, to get to the city, to buy the ticket, to wait another day, to catch a shuttle bus, to get to the airport, to fly to Dallas, to fly to London, to meet her big brother, and finally to drive home.

Home.

Through the peeling peach plaster of the hotel room Louise listened to an English couple discuss their wedding.

“It’s not a loan, we’ll tell him, it’s a gift because we can’t get married without him, right? Whenever he can, he’s to get a flight to meet us in Honduras, right?” His voice annoyed her, too childish and whiney for a grown man, she thought irritably. Do all British men sound so young? She didn’t remember. It had been twelve years since last living there, and memory was patchy about anything beyond her dad, her mum, and big brother. Every second hit her with a new picture of one day or another when they’d sat around the kitchen table, drinking wine and telling each other stories to make them laugh.

That night in bed when sleep didn’t find her, Louise craved a child. A boy. To call him Tony after her dad. Her body ached with the need for a child of her own. But life had taken her in another direction and there would be no son to remind her of her dad, to fill that void, that desire. She thought of all the kids in her life that light up when they see her. Marley. Freya. Dasen. Freddy. Maria. Thomas. Emily.

“Well, at least I have my little friends,” she said to herself and clutched her old teddy bear.

Time dragged. Two days to wait in an anonymous city, waiting to go home, where she would really feel her dad’s absence from the house, the silences he filled with stories and laughing. Louise packed and unpacked and packed again. Non-stop she fiddled, looked for something, then forgot what in particular, then replaced it all in the green small back pack on the other bed, empty and unused by either friend or lover. Louise wiped the table over and over; her fingers never stopped dancing on the bed. Shoulders tensed and juddered of their own will just as they had after that terrible phone call, when Louise had turned to Stacy and lowered her head sobbing.

During the evening promenade, the orchestra pulled together the wandering tourists and locals and filled the park with rows of wooden seats. Louise found herself drawn in, and ended up sitting next to an old couple and their grandsons.

‘Dolor con suenos de alegria’ means pain with dreams of happiness.

The irony of the musical choice was not lost on her, and she cried again, tired of crying but unable to stop. She listened and cried gentle tears, admiring the stonework of the sixteenth century; the architecture of Spanish colonial times, the arches and pillars, and the fountains reminded her of the family holidays in northern Spain. Age six and learning to swim in Aranda. Eating fresh sardines grilled over the fire in Santander. The huge waves mum dragged her and Mike into squealing with delight.   On Saturday nights, both in Spain and Guatemala people walk and greet each other, sharing ice creams with little children, couples go courting and the shoeshine boys earn whatever they can. Louise stopped one lad to polish her leather boots for the funeral. His hands were blackened and his own shoes were laceless, but his grin reached his eyes as they talked about their families.

Later that night Louise looked around the worn out room, thankful to be going home. To the town she grew up in, to those cousins who tease her. To the uncles and aunts. Family suddenly made sense to her, after all these years apart, she knew she needed them, now more than ever. And they needed her, wanted her to come back, back home.

“I took my dad to Central America. Now he is taking me home.”

…It was time for Louise to go home.

BRITISH AIRWAYS offered her tea, milky with sugar. The taste made her relax back into the window seat, knowing that the first thing her mum would do is put the kettle on.

 

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So, how are the rattlers at your place?

“How are they? Er, fine, thanks, pretty healthy.”
I smiled and wondered if that’s what he meant, this tourist I was chatting with at the coffee shop in town. Here I am in Madrid, NM, talking about rattlesnakes as usual. It’s the season for paranoia. I’m over it to be honest, looking forward to moving to Vermont, a place of bugs and mozzies, something less life-threatening. I can deal with that.

So what do you say to the question about rattlers? Where do I begin? Do you want the statistics of injuries, deaths, human encounters or animal encounters? The names and numbers of those who’ll come take care of the snake for you? Talk of Little Chris, who once drunk as a skunk, thought he could pick one up with his hand. He ended up in hospital for a week. Stories, you want stories? Are you sure?

We had a few bad years, the moisture and springtime brought an abundance of mice, rats, rabbits and snakes. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Or rather, I’m going back too far. Let’s talk about now. In May 2017.

This week, Rosie my mini-Husky/ lab mix, went to the vet for blood work so we can start her on heartworm. We had to sedate her, and that alone took an hour to mellow her out enough to then cover her in a towel while Nan took blood. While we’re sitting around after Harold, the other dog, a Collie/ Husky mutt recovered from minor surgery, and Rosie is trying not to fall asleep, Nan tells me of a rattlesnake bite. Damn, already? I’m not ready, already…

Rebecca’s young dog, Nika, was bitten on the nose, spent the night in the emergency care at the local vets in Santa Fe. Costly, scary, not something I wish on anyone. I forget though, how unusual this is, this risk of rattlers. In a presentation given at Overland Expo in Flagstaff, one of the crowd asked me where I lived since so much of the class was spent on the subject of how to take care of rattlesnake bites and more importantly, all those little things we can do to limit the risks. Like move to Vermont, that sounds good to me.

I’ve been at home in New Mexico since 1993. It’s been a while, I come and go most years, most months even, but rattlers are part of life here. No flip-flops on walks. Cut the weeds and grass near your home and on paths. Clean up the piles of lumber, trash, recycling etc to keep rats away and also so there are less places for the snakes to claim as their own . Don’t walk around at night in the height of summer. Don’t walk around in the evenings and mornings of spring. It’s all about timing, temperature, season. There’s so much to consider. Not that I knew any of this when I bought my land outside of town. Finally, I was a grown up! I had property, twenty acres, an adobe shack to create into a home. All within reach of the local village, it seemed perfect. In many ways, it is.

That first summer though was a challenge, emotionally. Living in a school-bus, raising a new puppy, Harold the Handsome, and building a home while working as a landscaper the rest of the week. Damn I was fit. And busy. It was a good life. I had a home! Well, almost. The shack was about twenty by twenty with a flat roof that leaked, broken windows, dark and dank, with straw and dirt floors. The fourth wall, facing the driveway, was incomplete, some windows, some half-finished stable doors and not much else. I put the mattress inside once I’d cleaned up after the last human pack-rat/ squatter had left it filled with pipes, broken tools and gadgets, dirty clothes, old rotten sleeping bags for him and his kid. I’d claimed it back to health, swept the dirt, put in a camp-chair, a mattress, and a stove for coffee in the mornings. Home, I had my own home.

New Folder (64)

Harold woke me up with a squeak. Dark inside our new home, I fumbled for the flashlight but couldn’t find it. Harold squeaked a puppy yip of fear. A rattle sounded. I froze. Harold shook. At the end of the bed, a rattler coiled up and stared us down. Saying nothing, I slowly climbed out of bed, clutching Harold to me, and hugged the walls, gently moving around the bed and out the front almost-door.

I stashed Harold in the truck. I locked the doors.
No, I don’t know why, but I locked the doors. No snake would get him now.

It was five in the morning. What the hell was I to do? My friends Alexis and Alan were camped on the land with their two kids. I wrote a note and stuck a rock on top so they’d find it on opening their doors in the morning. First light was creeping over the horizon and I craved coffee. To Java Junction then. Down the dirt road and into Madrid we drove. Harold on my lap, me trying not to cry. It was too early though, the cafe wasn’t yet open. I drove to Carol’s and woke her. Eyes still closed, she passed me the tools. I shook my head.

“You want me to do it?”

Nod. Nod. Desperate nod. Carol was one of our local snake-wranglers, and of course I wanted her to do it. I was too freaked out. This was my home. My supposed safe space. Home. Home isn’t meant to be invaded by things that kill. That’s in movies and books. Not real life. Not my life.

“Okay, give me half an hour. I’ll meet you at Java. I need a shower.”

A shower? At this time? It’s too important for a damn shower…but I nodded, mute as ever, and wandered next door. Elisa came to the porch in pajamas.

“Ooh, yes, let me get my gun! I’ll meet you at Java.” She trotted off excited by my news. No need for a shower for the Minx.

By seven o’clock, I’d rallied a team of gunslingers, hoe-holders, kids, families on holiday, families just curious, Grandmas and kin, all ready to take down this snake for me. We couldn’t find the fucker though. My not-quite-a-home was barren, dirt walls, dirt floors, wooden beams and little else. Where could it be? Carol and I slowly lifted the mattress, nope. Then the box spring, nope. I slashed the fabric underneath to make sure, what a nightmare that would’ve been, to find it hiding in my bed the next night. Then Carol mentions how snakes climb. As one, we all look up at the wooden ceilings, above us in the trees but nothing. Carol stepped lightly in ever-widening circles and under a thick juniper some fifteen feet from the house, she found it. A six-footer. Thick of waist and hearty with hissing, it rattled furiously as she caught it in her home-made noose, and dropped it into a metal trashcan. Alexis slammed the lid. Elisa reluctantly put the gun away. The kids loved it: Viv, Sofia, Zoe and Kathryn, all under ten years old and loving every moment. Not me. Not so much. But we were done, right?

Half of the crew left, and Harold was allowed out of the locked truck. He wandered around, sniffing and peeing as puppies do. Then Carol mentioned that at rattlers often pair up.
“I think there’s another one near by. It’s just a sense.”

Oh great. Just great.

Harold was quickly deposited back in the truck. I hid on the far side of the house, rocking manically when Elisa joined me. Five feet something, a Chicagoan folk artist who inspires me constantly with her quirky views and manners, she pulls up the only other chair. The adobe wall behind us hides us from the Sleam Team and it’s peaceful, briefly. She sighs and picks at a rock, making shapes with the scattered debris at her feet.

“They found another. The dilemma now is, what to do with it. They can’t open the trash can because number one wants out. So, I think-”

Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam.

There goes Elisa’s gun as she finishes by saying, “-that Alexis is going to shoot the second one. She might even-”

Bam. Bam.

“-shoot the first one too.”

I can’t deal, suddenly I’m sobbing in the corner with Elisa awkwardly being there for me. Pat. Pat. We’re not the cuddly type. Pat. Pat. Young Viv comes around the corner with a bloody rattle in her hand, dripping down her five-year old skinny forearm, happily showing “Look what I got! Dad cut it off for me! Do you want the other one?”

“Viv,” says Elisa, “now might not be the best time.”
“Oh, okay. I’ll show the others.” Viv wandered off around back to the activity out front.

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These days, the old timers in Madrid call me Snake: they don’t know that I’d cried. I didn’t mention that part. I did get pretty good at dealing with the snakes on my own. I’ve caught three or so per year in the last nine years up here, killed some, got friends to catch some, and even called Animal Control at times. All in a summer’s work, right? What’s the big deal? It just never ends…

A few years later, we had the snake season from hell. A neighbor of mine was breeding them, not intentionally, but you know, three acres of stuff, piles of broken down vehicles, trash, lumber, firewood, old mobile homes and trailers, his property was a hotbed of snake sex. Nine dogs were bitten that summer. Three died. One was a puppy, a little boy I’d called Eric, he and his siblings used to come hang out with me next door. Too young, too small, he’d swollen and died. My snake magic couldn’t help him. I did adopt the rest of his litter though, fostered until we found them all homes, safe homes.

Snake magic. I say that with a shake of the head. So Santa Fe, I can’t wait to be gone from those who tell me all about snake magic, ask me what I’m transforming or shaking off, pronounce my need to let go of old ways to shed the skin of blah-de-blah-de-bloody-blah. I’m too pragmatic, too bloody English for such talk. I nod, mutely, and watch where I step.

After getting back from the vet this week, Harold was sleeping in the house after having a lump removed, and Rosie staggered around, telling the cat, “I’m fine, fine. Just can’t walk too well, right now. Oh shit, SNAKE!”

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

The monotonous single bark alerts me. She’s seen a snake. I race out and coach her and Little Stevie, the cat, back into the house. With dog-door closed, I look for the snake. It’s six inches of dried cholla. She was tripping. False alarm. Thankfully. I’m over it. Bloody snakes.

At least the home is finished now.  I can sleep safely.

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Before Coffee: the comic book

Well, you asked for it. Here we are. The first volume in the ongoing series of comics. Available in all the usual spaces…and for now, get it at https://www.createspace.com/7125650.

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Thanks everyone for the incredible support.

Mid-life Fun times/ Crisis?

 

Part One: Well, what is it? A crisis? Or fun times? I can’t tell. Mid-life is often described as a challenge at best and a crisis for the rest. So where am I within that spectrum? I don’t know. I honestly don’t really know. Bloody moody though…

Mid-life, yep, I’m turning 50 next month. The number doesn’t worry me. But. What is the “but”? I’ve been restless for a few years now, needing more stimulus than a small village can give me, new conversations, new challenges. So what did I do? Apply for Graduate School. Me? The not so great student of my twenties applied for a masters degree without  telling many. I didn’t want to explain the rejections I envisioned, ego got in the way. I’m glad though I kept it quiet.

Months passed, I worked on my home, finished a new outhouse, painted floors, fixed fences, and planned my escape. Just like when I was a teenager. I feel very much like a teenager again, all grown up and leaving home for new adventures. Sorry, Mum, I’d needed to leave home then. Sorry, Madrid, I need to leave home now.

It’s not an escape, not purely a running away, but with the acceptance to Vermont College of Fine Arts with their relatively new MFA in Writing and Publishing, I’m leaving home. My home that I built, foundations, walls, windows, electric, plumbing, stucco, all of it done by my rough hands and impressionistic nature. I did it. Now what’s next? The thought of spending the rest of my life here doesn’t appeal. In fact, it scares me, there’s such a huge world out there, I can’t stay in one place any longer.

So how did I decide on a masters degree? It was tough, a rough road to map out. The application process is draining yet inspiring. My biggest challenge was finding references as most here know me as a gardener and writer. They don’t know of my educational background, my time at London University, or Freiburg University, or studying spanish in Valencia. The classes I’ve taken over the last twenty years here in Santa Fe or San Francisco. My cover letter focused on a full life of making my own stories, communities I’ve been part of, what I’ve done with myself, self-taught, and productive on a daily level. It was enough aparently, and I’m offered a place at Vermont in Montpelier.

One of the faculty wrote me to introduce herself, praising specific lines and images from the writing sample I’d sent in. Julianna spoke highly of the emotional undercurrent and how it intrigued her, and that she was looking forward to working with me. I wrote back, “But I haven’t been accepted yet, have I?”

“Oops,” she wrote. “Let me check.”

Yes, I was in, a final reassurance and yes, I’m going to grad school! At fifty! In Vermont! Only 2100 miles away, the complete opposite climate to here, five months of snow, bugs the size of black beans, and… well, I don’t know what else. I’m trying to find out by spending hours online researching the area and the curriculum.

I’m moving. Oh wow, I’m moving. When I finally told my friends and neighbours here in Madrid, Andrea squealed, others hugged me and one focused on how she’d miss me. I get it. It’s like I’m jumping ship. I am, but I’m a good swimmer. I’ve been practicing once a week at the Chavez center in Santa Fe.

The logistics though are becoming a nightmare for me. Trouble sleeping most of my life, this level of anxiety and excitement is draining me with dreams of disasters, or rather details. Too many tangents to grab hold of, each with its own alley way to wander down, looking for loopholes and issues. One or two vehicles? How would I take my stuff across country? Do I fill the 4Runner with stuff and have a friend drive it while I follow in my camper van? Or do I drive the 4Runner with my pets and fill a Uhaul trailer?
I look at rentals. Well, not one offers a place for two vehicles. That limits me then. So what do I do with the van? Mary and Stacy will take it, keep it at their place inside a gated yard, with them using it every so often. That’s the latest plan. Open to changes.

My weakness has been for vehicles so it’s not just two: I have four. I need to take care of four. Oh shit. I can’t just sell them. I like them. Well, okay, I’ll have to sell one, I need the money to cross country. The motorbike then, I’ll sell that. Try to. The Land Rover though, I should pass that on. But the day I decided to sell it, five random conversations all mentioned Shorty and how cool it is to see me in it. Damn.  It’s too cool to sell for school. Can I take it? Nope, but…? Nope, I have to store it somewhere safe, off its tires with the hood open, to keep it mice free hopefully. But where? Who’ll keep an eye on it?

Logistics, is this what stops others from making such dramatic life changes? Probably. Finding a home rental is the other biggest challenge. Who wants to rent to someone you haven’t met? I don’t. I’m going through the same problem with renting my own homestead. Sheesh. It’s too much. My days are highs and lows, with numerous naps between tackling the internet and filling out forms. Fun times, fun times, right?

Traveling with two dogs and a cat. Finding a rental. Finding a renter for my home. Vehicle madness. Yard sales. Craigslist. Scholarships. Funding. Moving. Packing. Decisions one after another. Where’s my dad when I need him? I crave sitting at the dining room table with my notes and brainstorming with him over a beer. Or at the kitchen table with Mum and a glass of wine, playing with ideas and options.
I’m not a teenager after all. I miss their help.  I miss my mum and dad.

 

 

 

LA for an award? Sure, I’ll go.

It must be an elaborate hoax, right? That my latest book won an award? That I’m being flown to LA tomorrow for a dinner downtown?

I’m packed, I figure even if it is a hoax, I might as well spend the weekend in LA. I haven’t been there in over 25 years, oh shit, that makes me old. Well, is there a big difference between that innocent yet brave kid and my current self? In some ways – no. I write, she wrote, we’re both restless and curious, not satisfied by the mundane but needing to find out other people’s stories and experiences. I’m excited to land in LA early in the morning and have the time to wander around, take the bus to the beach, wander up to Santa Monica to eat fish and chips at the British Pub that I remember.

The first time in LA, I was 22 years old with a backpack, a handful of dollars and one address in Venice Beach. I walked, talked, explored and stayed with a friend I’d met in Germany a year or two before. We’d gone to Freiburg University together, she was a good student, me not so much.

This time, I have a flight, a credit card, a small daypack, and no addresses. I’ll be staying at an Airbnb place near LA Live where we’re having the Awards Dinner. I can walk there and back easily and take the metro in the morning back to the beach before my flight Sunday night. Short and sweet a visit.

Is is hoax? What do I wear? What do I say at the ceremony?
What do I want from the experience? To network and talk to agents and publishers. To find a larger readership. To know that I am a writer after all these years. It’s real. It’s not a hoax.

From the website:

GREAT NORTHWEST BOOK FESTIVAL NAMES “VAN LIFE” FOR TOP HONORS

A woman who decides to hit the road with a van, three animals and her adventurous spirit is the grand prize winner of the 2017 Great Northwest Book Festival, which honors the best books of the late winter/spring.

Author Sarah Leamy’s “Van Life” (CreateSpace)  is the story of a writer who decides that there’s more to living than working retail and yearning for adventure. So it is that she takes two dogs and a cat on a rollicking trip through the back roads of the Northwest, stumbling across rural villages and a microbrewery or three. Her stories of the locals, the scenery and her family of animals are funny, poignant and ultimately a satisfying read for any armchair adventurer who dreams of doing something similar. Leamy and others in the competition will be honored in a private ceremony later this month.

 

Awards! Contests! Festivals! 

http://www.greatnorthwestbookfestival.com/

The Great Northwest Book Festival just honored my book VAN LIFE as the Grand Winner of their 2017 contest! I’m thrilled and delighted! They’re covering the cost of the flight out from NM to the awards dinner in LA and even are giving me an appearance fee. Bruce, who wrote to me, wrote: “Congratulations on a fun and page-turning read. Definitely one of the most fun reads I’ve seen in a while.”

http://www.greatnorthwestbookfestival.com/ for a link to their winners’ page.

For me, entering contests and festivals is a chance to find new readers as it’s mostly been word of mouth, going to events, chatting up strangers and handing off books and business cards. The opportunity of a book festival award opens more doors, tells others that my stories are compelling and that self-pubishing works. It does. I’m doing much better for myself these days although I’ll be honest, it’s a small time business, locally focused.

My goal then for this year? To find an agent. To have a chance at getting my books known nationally and internationally – it’s doable since I have a small steady following of readers here in the US and in Europe. I just need to build on that. And I will.

Solo Travels: Tips for women

http://www.fempotential.com/scared-solo-female-traveler/

“Aren’t you scared?”

Just yesterday a friend asked me if I ever got scared camping on my own, travelling on my own. No. I don’t. There’s more to it than that, but simply put, no, camping on my own is where I am happiest and most relaxed. In towns, in cities, surrounded by people, traffic, noise, music, talking for the sake of filling in the silence, no, that is not where I relax.

Last year, I had the honor of being a panelist on a discussion about the art of solo travels. Overland Expo West 2016 had almost 10,000 people all interested in vehicle dependent travels, whether local or worldwide; we all were there to get inspired.

To hear the stories from others who just have the wanderlust in their blood like I do was reassuring for me. I’ve been settled for too long now, and I’m restless again. I have been for the last few years, working towards getting on the road again.

That weekend at Overland Expo, I talked about crossing the States at 22 years old, hitch hiking with a small backpack and no credit cards or money, just following my distracted ideas of what to do next. I talked about riding my 1976 Yamaha XS750 across the Midwest repeatedly even though it would break down every other day, street performing in Guatemala, and driving the high elevation passes in Colorado in a 1973 VW Beetle. I never knew what to expect — these stories are part of me. I lost my two front teeth in Tarancon, Spain. I woke up on a train in Switzerland, not quite sure which country I was in. Hitched to the Munich beer festival. And yes, I travel alone. And I like it.

I admit, I once traveled with someone. It was 1989. Steve joined me in Chicago, a friend from my small hometown. I was walking down the streets in the city, knowing we’d find each other somehow but since neither of us had phones or hotel rooms, it would be a challenge. I walked with my backpack clunking away against my hips when I saw Steve sitting on a bench smoking. I sat down next to him and took his smoke.

We crossed to Maine, New York, Washington; we took trains, hitched, and then stayed at random homes of the families we met along the way. It wore me out. Steve let me make all the decisions. It wore me out. The responsibility. The constant discussions as to what we would eat that night, where we would sleep.

There have been other moments, a week here and there, spent on a road trip with a friend, but nothing as extended as that initial travel with Steve, bless him. Since then, I tend to go off on my own, I’m happier that way.

You see, it’s that on my own, I’m free to follow my nose, or rather the signs that capture my attention. It’s usually the ones that say ‘lake’ or ‘4wd only”, and off I go. I generally have a loose plan, places I’d like to visit if I’m in the area. I set a few goals, for small weeklong trips and for the extended travels. These days with the Internet, I plan a lot more, looking at photos, reading forums, and asking for suggestions. Whether I follow the ideas, that’s another story. I tend to forget to read my own notes.

 

Since I’ve done a bit of everything, backpacking, hitching, motorcycles, busses, trains, VWs, trucks and now a van I’ve learned that I have to be aware of what I bring. Packing has become more complicated nowadays, as two dogs and a cat come with me. I’ve made a short list for this latest configuration, and with the idea in mind that I might have to abandon ship (van) in an emergency, all the necessary items must fit in a small backpack too. I can leave the rest. I have before, in a dead VW bus in the middle of nowhere Missouri. I never did see that red camper again. I miss that van. Oh, well. But it was an adventure…

I love that I can eat what I like and when I like. Frito pie for breakfast? Bacon sandwich before bed? Chocolate? Cheese and crackers? Veggies and eggs? Whatever I like, when I like. It’s wonderful and one of the biggest perks for me.

As a solo traveler, I interact much more with locals. Since they appreciate how trusting I am, it’s always come back to me that these strangers treat me with the same level of trust.

As a twenty-two-year-old, I was hitching through Wisconsin, heading north to catch a ferry across to Michigan. My destination was a tiny village along the small blue highways in the Midwest. A truck pulled over, and two men started chatting to me. Two men and myself as a young woman? I talked to them, the father and son, and they offered a ride, but first they wanted to call ‘Mother’ and ask about dinner. I listened in as one of them chatted away, grinned, and said it was okay with her but I had to agree to come over to meet her! We ended up sharing a meal, they put me in the son’s bedroom, and dropped me off at the ferry in the morning, after introducing me to the Ferry Master. Safe? Yes, I remember them so clearly all these years later.

You see, I’m curious. The people I meet and their stories feed me. I also found that when I first crossed the States alone that many families I met wanted my stories of other states, places, towns, ones they had never visited themselves. My anecdotes of their own country paved the way for their hospitality. It was a trade in a sense. The armchair travelers got to explore their own country through me.

But I have to admit, I’m not very safe. I go places I shouldn’t. No one really knows where I am these days. I follow roads, conversations, and dreams. I have no back-up plans. I take risks. I fly by the seat of my pants and all without a safety net. I like it. Traveling like this wakes me up. Opens me up. To answer the question I started with, have I ever been scared? A couple of times. That’s all. First was when I had to get myself back from the South of France as an eighteen-year-old who’d been fired from her nanny job. I had a passport and a plastic bag of clothes. No money. No credit cards. And this was before cell phones, not that I would have called my parents, I preferred to get back and then tell them. I didn’t like to worry them! Poor buggers. I stowed away on a train, stole food, had a guard try to rape me, smashed him in his privates, and locked myself in a bathroom on the train. That was the first big solo trip and the sense of achievement at the end was incomparable: “I can improvise. I can get out of trouble. I should keep traveling!”

And I have. Looking back, even in the last ten years of ‘settling’, I took a ferry back from Alaska and a salmon cannery down the Canadian coast, camped all over the Southwest, spent three months in the Northwest, took a winter living on communes in North Carolina and Tennessee, rode my motorcycle across Wales and Ireland, studied in San Francisco, and had many other random shorter trips in the States. Not bad, not bad…

In my twenties, I just traveled without thought, it was an addiction, a need. I couldn’t sit still for more than a few months. I settled for a while but that addiction has kicked back in. I built a home, worked, settled and now the last few years, the need to explore new places has taken over.

If you haven’t traveled alone before though, you’d need to ask yourself: Where are you happiest? How do you spend your days? Are you mostly surrounded by friends and co-workers? Or do you work alone? Live alone? What are your social needs in other words? Think about what stresses you out and what makes you relax. For me, time without words, yes, I know, ironic since I’m a writer, but still, empty heads talking at each other wears me out. I like silence. I like mountains. And I like the company of animals more than people. But that’s me…and then after a couple of days alone, I love to sit and chat to friends and strangers alike. I have the energy and desire to hear their stories. To tell mine. To connect. Knowing yourself is one of the amazing benefits of solo travels, you have to take care of yourself and you will. There’s no one else.  Each time, I learn new rhythms and routines that are mine, pure and simple.

Close friends still ask, how do you find meaning when you have no one to share the experiences with? But I do. I write. I photograph. And simply sitting next to a lake in the mountains alone with my dogs, I know that our world is magical, stunningly beautiful whether I am there or not. I am a very small speck in a huge world and that is reassuring to me. I relax.

There is an art to solo traveling and the more I travel alone, the more I appreciate nature and the random conversations with people I meet. I am not afraid. I am open to life and adventures…and after doing this since I was a teenager much to my mum’s horror, I’m getting the hang of it. Finally. The question for me is where next? And when?

To hear more about Sarah Leamy’s solo travels, check out her book, Bring a Chainsaw & Other Stories From My Solo Travels

Solo traveler Sarah Leamy shares why she loves to solo travel and why it doesn't scare her to see the world alone.

 

How will art change my writing?

As a lifelong writer, it’s a complete switch in direction to suddenly, obsessively, sketch. First thing in the mornings. Before coffee. As I’m hanging out with friends. In the winter’s evenings. I’m committed, and addicted, to sketching. Doodles? Portraits? Still life? Pen and ink? Landscapes? Watercolours? Cartoons? I’ll try anything.

And I have to wonder how this changes my writing. Will it? Will it make my stories brief to the point of novels becoming a short story in a magazine? Will I master the art of slow-reading, editing out every other unnecessary word in my own works in reaction to this simplification?

I’m curious. Yet, I can’t stop sketching long enough to read anything of substance nor to write much beyond a short article or blog. I must get back on the word-wagon though. That’s why I quit my day job, right? To focus on submitting, working at, improving my writing. I give myself a hard time, the days seem so long, what am I doing with myself? Flake!

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Then I look at all that I’m working on, learning, and researching. Since quitting the retail job, my income has dropped significantly, yet my interest in people and their stories has increased. I have time for you, mostly. Tell me what you’ve read, experienced, but not just how much you drank on the weekend, although maybe that will be the next book? Drinking as the social outlet in small towns?

Flake? How can I call myself a flake? Because I work from home? Because my days are my own? I don’t know but it’s true, I am hard on myself. More. More. Must do more. But let’s see, remind myself of all I’ve done in the last few months. A book length travelogue. Three photo essay books and another in the works this week. Four photography calendars. Three articles for fempotential.com’s travel section. Two articles for Classic Land Rover magazine in the UK and a position on their staff for a new section called Stateside Stories. Postcards of five of the cartoons from the Before Coffee series. A Flickr account. Two stock photography accounts with well respected websites. Two interviews for upcoming essays. Submissions each week to various publishers. A press pass for a huge Overland Travel Rally in Arizona. Yep, it’s coming together. I’m reaching my goals steadily.

In the meantime, life revolves around researching online, following the calls for stock photography, setting up more platforms on social media, looking for the magazines and papers that take submissions on travel related essays complete with good quality photos.  BE SMART says my notice board in the kitchen.

  • Submit
  • Market
  • Art practice
  • Research
  • Travel

My morning is feed the critters, make coffee and go back to bed with a sketch pad. Then it’s time for a walk with two dogs in the brisk sunrise quiet of New Mexico. Back to the home and with laptop warming up for me, I make a quick breakfast. Check emails. Check  list of goals for the day. Research the questions that came up from the day before, for example, what is the industry standard for single panel comics? When is the deadline to submit the watercolours to the gallery in Madrid? Mornings are full of online work, the writing, following threads and taking notes. I get overwhelmed by words, by the ideas and potentials and it’s hard to focus. Hence the lists for the next day, a way to allow those ideas to settle into priorities and action plans.
The afternoon is less word oriented. Reading has fallen aside in the last three months and I know that as a writer, I need to read more. Yet, I can’t. It’s time for a break, for new inspiration, and that’s coming from sketching, and from asking my professional artist friends, and even watching Youtube videos on beginning art techniques. The amount of people with quality tutorials leaves me in awe, the notepad filling, and yet more ideas pop up.

With a hike in the hills with the dogs, watching the sunset with the dogs and Little Stevie at the overlook by my home, we settle in for the night. Another few hours of sketching, trying out techniques and styles, a last minute look online at social media, and then to bed with a magazine or short story, it’s all I can manage. I’m tired.

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My articles have started appearing regularly in a few places, and it’s an amazing feeling. There are many submitted that weren’t exactly rejected, but no one responded. I’ll wait a month and check in with those editors. I need to learn a system for keeping track as my notebook is a little distracted as am I. Classic Land Rovers, travels as a solo woman, the pets, and simply put this life of mine. I’ve not yet looked into writing about the off-grid homestead of mine, why not? It’s just what I do, nothing special to build a wooden outhouse one weekend? Or to fix a leaking roof? To wander around my home with dogs, cat and two chickens following along?

These sketches of mine, the daily practice is taking me along fast. I don’t know where this new discovered talent will take me, but aiming high, how about getting published? Syndicated? Well, hell, why not? It’s good to have goals…I’ll work on it. I will.

From these beginning doodles in January:

And to this, the last week in February, I’m happy and amazed at the learning curve. Where will I be by the end of the year? That is the commitment, to sketch every day, and I’m on it.

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It’s going to be interesting to see how my essays change as my focus is now on being brief, direct, and still quirky. We’ll see. It’s a process. I’m not stopping.