Monday, September 28, 2009

Ask Clarissa

I went to Abigail's beach house just to get away from school and life and the coffee house and maybe even John Beckett for the weekend. I read the Pooh book, which Abigail told me over and over is not a Pooh book, and had really nothing to contribute to any conversation about it. It was a cute book, I guess. I will probably save it to give to my own kid someday. But it didn't, like, move me. I didn't have sticky notes protuding out of mine like Lauren had in hers.

And I wasn't pondering the illustrations like Ryan was. I am not even sure she read the dang book. She was just all over the illustrations; their charm and poetic imperfections and wonderfully abstract shadows. Whatever.

The first night at the house we decided to have our dinner outside on the patio (Esperanza grilled salmon) and discuss our overall impressions of the book. Oh, yeah. We're talking about When We Were Very Young. Lauren went on and on about this and that, Ryan murmured one-word super-niceties about the illustrations, Esperanza said she wished she had known about the book when her kids were little and I said I didn't have any overall impressions.

All right, Abigial said. How about underall impressions then, and the other girls laughed.

Do you have a favorite line? Lauren asked.

I cracked open the book to the Pooh poem and said, "A bear however hard he tries, grows tubby without exercise." And I snapped it shut.

Lauren and Ryan giggled but Abigail didn't.

I love that line, too, she said.

And then Lauren and Ryan stopped laughing because Abgail was serious.

Think of a bear, she said. A bear lives alone unless it's a mother with cubs. They hunt alone, they walk alone. They sleep alone. And if they just sit in their cave and do nothing, they increase their size but never their influence. They never make a difference to anybody. They just get fat.

It got quiet then.

I don't think Pooh minds being chubby, I said. He likes it. It's part of who he is. And other people like it about him. Other people love that about him.

That's not really Pooh, she said. It's before he was Pooh.

It's Pooh and you know it, I said. Besides, it says "however hard he tries," Abigail. That's the opposite of sitting in a cave and doing nothing. Even Eeyore would tell you that.

She broke into a smile and then began to laugh.

Abigail seemed different after that moment, like something big and heavy that she'd been carrying around for decades had just fallen into the ocean below us.

We all sat and talked until well after dark. And when I went to bed, in the room Abigail had slept in as a child, I opened the book and started to read it again from the first page. It wasn't like the first time I read it. This time it made me feel young, like a kid. And I fell asleep thinking of my old bedroom and the sound of my parents talking in low tones as they shut down the house for the night, and Fruit Stripe gum and new boxes of crayons and watching the stars come out.

I began the weekend just wanting to get away and I left it not wanting to go back. Life is complicated when you are an adult. Too complicated.

John Beckett, who can just about drive me crazy with his opinionated diatribes, kissed me tonight. I wanted him to. . .

Friday, September 25, 2009

Love, Lauren

Dear Raul:

I hope you've had a more restful week than last week. I don't know why the universal They insist that medical students must be sleep-deprived to learn anything.

I am learning to think of us as just good friends, as you have asked, but I would be lying if I said it's a skill I like. I am not trying to start a conversation you don't want to have yet, but if we can't be honest with each other, how can we be good friends? I miss you, Raul. And I miss thinking of you as more than just a friend.

I wanted to call you as soon as I got back to Santa Barbara from the weekend at the Pismo Beach house. But I needed time to mentallywork through the weekend's effect on me.

It was different for Clarissa and Ryan. They had never been there before, and so they started making memories from nothing, mostly good ones. The house is beautiful, has an outrageously fantastic view, is steps away from the ocean and Abigail paid for everything. The only damper on their perspective was Abigail's prognosis, something we all attempted to avoid thinking about anyway.

But I had been to the beach house before. It's where I found Abigail and the diary that terrible weekend she wanted to disappear - in every sense of the word. I's stopped it then; that course she had set for checking out on me altogether. But I can't stop it this time. No one can.

We sat at the same patio table, the girls and Abigail and I, where I had given Abigail that book of poetry Tom Kimura wanted her to have. But this time there was a different book on the table, When We Were Very Young. Also a book of poetry. I don't think Ryan had ever read a child's poetry book before, certainly not as an adult. It was a bit of a stretch for Clarissa, too. But I loved the book, probably because Abigail loves it and the reading of it has reminded her of much happier times.

I loved most the poem called The Invaders, abouta line of cows walking through a flower-strewn meadow: The first two stanzas are these: In careless patches through the wood/The clumps of yellow primrose stood/And sheets of white anemones/Like driven snow against the trees/Had covered up the violet/But left the bluebell bluer yet/Along the narrow carpet ride/With primroses on either side/Between their shadows and the sun/The cows came slowly one by one/Breathing the early morning air/And leaving it still sweeter there/And one by one intent upon/Their purposes, they followed on/In ordered silence. . .and were gone . . .

I just can just see it all. The flowers. The morning sun. The quiet cows and their lumbering stroll through the dewy grass.

When I told the girls that this one was my favorite, Abigail said, with tears in her eyes, that that was always her favorite, too. And I suddenly realized why she must like it so.


Her favorite flower. They always find a way to come back after a hard winter.

Take care, Raul. Don't work too hard. Life is short. . .

Love, Lauren.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Author Intrusion

Just a quick intermission here to share with you some exciting news! Lauren, Abigail, Clarissa and Esperanza told me it was okay to jump in here and tell you that The Shape of Mercy was named Book of the Year for Women's Fiction by the American Christian Fiction Writers. The award was presented Saturday night at the ACFW's annual conference in Denver. Pretty cool!

I was nominated with six other gifted writers; and I am truly amazed to have been named the winner. I wanted the Christian theme in The Shape of Mercy to be as organic to the plot as oxygen in our lungs - we breathe it in all day long with hardly ever being aware of it. So I was afraid the subtlety of the faith thread would perhaps keep me a nominee only - for which I was already extremely grateful. I was surprised beyond words when my fabulous editor called me with the news.

But I know you are anxious to get on with what happened at the Pismo Beach house this weekend when the Girlz gathered to discuss "When We Were Very Young." It was a weekend that can't be summed up in one post. Each of the gals will share with you their perspective on the "book club weekend," starting with Lauren - on Friday.

Until then . . .

Friday, September 18, 2009

From Mercy's Book of Poems and Stories

February 20, 1692

Papa was loaned a book of poetry from a gentleman he knows in Marblehead. Such a lovely, sad poem. It was written by Sir George Etherege. He wrote it for the woman who asked how long he would love her. Who of us knows the span of years we will be granted? I would rather exhaust myself having loved than to have avoided the ache of having loved simply because of the things I do not know.

"It is not, Celia, in our power
To say how long our love will last;
It may be we within this hour
May lose those joys we now do taste;
The Blessed, that immortal be,
From change in love are only free.

Then since we mortal lovers are,
Ask not how long our love will last;
But while it does, let us take care
Each minute be with pleasure past:
Were it not madness to deny
To live because we're sure to die?"

Friday, September 11, 2009

In the Kitchen with Esperanza

I am not very happy with the way things are. Abigail has cancer, as I am sure you already know. She will not let the doctors cut it out. You know that, too. They can't cut it all out anyway. And besides, she said, it likes her. It will grow back.

I cannot picture my life outside the walls of this house. I have worked here since I was a teenager and I am now sixty-nine years old. Abigail says I have nothing to worry about. I can retire in good health and spend my days making tamales for Arturo and reading drinking horchata on my patio.

I don't want to retire.

And what will become of this big house?

I am not happy. Not happy at all.

This dish isn't authentic Mexican but Lauren and the girls like it. They want it all the time. And I don't feel like finding something to post here today that I really like.

Biscuit Topped Mexican Chicken
2 cups cooked chicken, cubed
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 can of chopped chiles
1 cup shredded Jack cheese
1 cup shredded Cheddar
1 can Mexican style corn
1 cup Bisquick
1 cup milk
3 eggs separated
1/2 tsp salt
fresh ground pepper

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Grease 11 x 7 pan. Layer chicken, onion, chiles, cheese and corn. Beat Bisquick, milk, salt, pepper and egg yolks. Beat egg whites in separate bowl until stiff. Fold in yolk mixture. Pour over chicken. Bake until knife inserted in top comes out clean, about 35 minutes. The girls like it with Spanish rice.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Abigail on the Classics

I have spent the last few days reading literature that simply doesn't thrill me in the least. In fact, it has left me feeling rather depressed. And for pity's sake, who has time to read depressing literature when there are so many wonderful books, begging for attention?

I certainly don't have time. So I am putting away the literature on what happens to your body when the cancer within lays claim to your insides like a greedy Monopoly player who simply isn't content to own hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place. I am through reading about obstructed this and blocked that and stents and stomas and grains of sand in the hourglass.

Today, I feel lovely. I have no sense of the Intruder today. And today is all I consider anymore.

We are reading A. A. Milne's When We Very Young, the girls and I. Dear Ryan, the girl-with-the-boy-name who I regret I haven't learned to love yet, held up her copy today and announced with disdain, "This is Winnie-the-Pooh."

No, it's a book of poems written by the man who created Winnie the Pooh, I told her.

It's a kid's book, she said.

Would you prefer some adult literature? I asked her, and I handed her the 50-page treatise on treatment options for advanced ovarian cancer.

She closed her pouty little mouth.

Didn't think so, I said.

When We Were Very Young is a collection of forty-four poems. It was the first of the books Milne wrote featuring Pooh and Christopher Robin, and when it was published in 1924, only a little more than 5,000 copies were printed. It seems to me Dorothea and I had one of those copies. We read it at the Pismo Beach house, I think. I just remember reading it with her in the sunshine. With sand between our toes. And there was lemonade and cherry tarts.

I don't have the book now. Makes me think maybe it was Dorothea's book. And nothing remains from her childhood; nothing except the memories I have of it.

I am going to suggest we girls discuss the book over a weekend retreat at the Pismo Beach house. Weekend after next. I shall have Esperanza call the property manager to air it out.

It will be relaxing and peaceful. How can it not with sand between our toes?

And there shall be lemonade and cherry tarts.