Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas Muse ~ Naughty & Nice

It’s a soggy, warm one, a climate change Christmas in Washington, gray and misty and oh so quiet. No racing cars on Park Road today, no noisy neighbors or clamoring renovation projects; only the sound of a few birds tweeting and crows cawing.
If I pretended, I could convince myself I was in a cabin in the woods, a perfect place to write. Santa’s gift to me is this peace. 

I have a goal, dear supporters, to get this Mexico manuscript sample to you by the end of the year. Just around the corner, eek!
I’ve had a few distractions, but good ones. Your encouragement has fueled a writing habit that’s branched into other territory. I’ve re-discovered a book I started writing back in 1998, and I’ve taken some spare time to breathe new life into it. I’ve been playing with short-form too, some opinion pieces and personal essays, submitting them to publications and inviting the rejections, which often come in the form of silence. But this is part of the writing game I’m playing, down on the field, getting banged around. And I’ve never been happier.
As Steven Pressfield (, author of The War of Art, says, when you beat Resistance and do The Work, even the blemishes on your face clear-up. (Or did I say that?)
To get to The Work each day, I warm-up with a little free-writing. I got zinging one morning in Ptwon about a holiday event I’d attended the night before.Then, that evening at the public library, after I’d shut-down and packed-up to go home, I discovered a gathering in the periodical room. A monthly meeting of the Writer’s Voice Café, folks were sharing stories of their holidays. I had no holiday stories, so I sat in the back and listened, until they’d run out of readers. I signed their register and slipped out. But half-way down the block I remembered: I did have something.
I ran back, and they welcomed me eagerly, someone to fill the dead air. They helped me plugged-in my computer so I could read from my screen, and they adjusted the goose-neck microphone so I could reach.
Here is what I shared (for adults only), this version a little prettied-up for submission.
Naughty and Nice: The Cup of Generosity Runneth Over in Provincetown

On a recent off-season sojourn in Provincetown, a fingertip of land at the end of the hand at the end of the arm of Cape Cod, after weeks of solitary writing, I happened upon The Kook, a gathering of the townies at Grotto Bar. Underground, with special guests Penny Champayne and Whitney Houston (aka Qya Cristal), sprightly elves danced, baring cheeky cheeks, the club mix thumped, and Santa’s Helpers offered-up tits-for-tots shooters between bountiful bosoms.

I felt like a voyeur on the fringe, DC product that I am, sipping my Dark and Stormy, too timid to dive in to the marshmallow folds. I saw that it took some skill, a team effort, the receiver bending on one knee as the titty teapot tipped forward. Good to the last drop, and sugary sweet, one imbiber reported. All for a good cause.

That’s what kept me out past my bedtime, gave me the excuse to partake in the first place: the cause. Sure, you say. No, honestly, I insist. Though I didn’t realize exactly what I was getting myself into when I got there, that the entire contents of my wallet would be empty by the time I left.

In a place know for the first Pilgrims’ landing, lighthouses and lobster, and fun in the sun with the queens, queers and bears, I saw another side of Ptown. It was the workers in the house, after their shifts, waiters and bartenders, performers and artists, dropping fivers in the collection trough for a pink tit shot, funding Santa wishes taped to the wall, ice skates for 10-year-old Vicky and a Star Wars Lego set for 8-year-old Dan. These children of working class families live in a place where locals have been priced right out of their own market. Amidst a sea of posh seaside DINK retiree cottages, so called ‘tiny houses’ selling for a mil, there’s just one low income housing project; and the waiting list is reportedly a mile long.

The event organizers, a gay couple in this for the 17th ‘straight’ year, were vibrant at the helm. Scott Martino played the potty-mouthed elfin MC; and his partner, a drag performer out of costume in blue jeans and Hawaiian shirt, sang twisted Christmas tunes, thanking Ptown for supporting him through his career, and matching the contents of the collection trough after each round. Their generosity and resourcefulness was like something out of the Peace Corps play book: 'Do what you can with what got where you are.'

These people were doing plenty. As a returned Peace Corps volunteer (Mexico 2010-12), I know how hard it can be to rally the community. As an out-of-towner, I was delighted to participate, stuffing my bills in the till, and a big one after Streisand’s lip-sync of jah-jah-jah-jah-jingle bells. 

Oh what fun! Generosity is alive and well in Provincetown. And those lucky kids will have presents under the tree this Christmas.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Provincetown Retreat - Chasing the Muse

I’ve stolen myself away to the Cape tip for a month of writing. My good friends (and supporters), John and Peter, have lent me their cottage in Provincetown, Mass, deserted at this time of year and, thus, a perfect place to indulge the muse.

What a luxury, a gift.

And what a grind.

First thing each morning I’m awakened by the workers, the buzz of saws and bang of hammers, undertaking their off-season renovations, replacing the roof and windows and doors. I get dressed, load-up my backpack and hike the mile up Commercial Street to the Ptown Library. There, I take out my tools and begin my own hammering away. I glance up from time to time to notice the light shifting on the harbor.

I’m there ‘til the fluorescent lights begin to flicker off and on at 4:45. I’m plotting, cutting, pasting, leaving darlings on the cutting room floor, a mess about my feet (and in my head). They say the memoirist is a sculptor, removing clay from a block to reveal the form, as opposed to a novelist who paints upon a blank canvas. But today I feel like a five year old with safety scissors and LePages. 

Let’s see. I hold it up, rotate it around. Hmm, what have I got here? A piece about Rita. She’s finally entering my story.

     Another Friday night in Rio, and I was stuck in a traffic jam in the main aisle of the Mexican Walmart. Extended families fore and aft of me, crying ninos, shuffling abuelos, and carts piled with provisions: kilos of tomatoes, racks of banana and burlap sacks of rice and beans, pallets of pampers, and liter bottles of neon soda.

     The smell of roast chickens filled the air, the announcer called out promotions over the loud-speaker. I had to get out of there. I had a Mexi-fusion variation on carabonara to cook-up, chopped jalepeno added for kick, and a date with Marc Coleman. As the water boiled I’d start-up iTunes and listen to his latest Dharmaseed download. He had a silky, sexy British accent and talked about love in a way that made me feel hopeful. But I definitely wasn’t finding it inside the Walmart.

     Just beyond a caged tower of bouncy balls, there was an opening. With my measly hand-basket on wheels, I was agile. I took a hard left, zipping through sporting goods, then doubled-back to produce where I edged out a Mexican mama for the last two broccoli florets. The deli counter was jammed, so I chose a package of Plumrose ham from the refrigerated section.

     The alcohol aisle was calm; so I took my time to peruse the labels, selecting a Cabernet from Baja California. The least I could do while patronizing this monopolistic chain of culture-killing consumerism is buy local. I swear, I never stepped foot into one of these stores in the states; but here in Rio, the so called Bodega Aurerra was practically the only game in town. And they made sure of that.

     I got through the snaking check-out line, retrieved my backpack from the bag check, and exhaled as I exited into the pink and gray glow of a desert sunset over the exhaust-filled parking lot. I fished-out my key, and came across the folded paper Bibiano had given me.

     ‘She’s moved locations. Nice place. Near the Bodega,’ he’d told me. ‘She’s been asking about you.’ Still, I’d had to pry the address out of him, like he was protecting it for himself.

     ‘El Fenix, 124 Gama.’ I unlocked my bike and wound the lock back around my seat post, hung my grocery bags one on each handle-bar, and straddled my seat. Maybe I’d see if I could find the place, just ride by and have a peak in.

     I peddled through the busy parking lot and hung a wobbly left onto Gama. Less than a block down, there it was, sandwiched between a rotisserie chicken stand and a carpenter’s workshop. A hand-painted sign in black and red and gold of a phoenix in flight hung above the door.

     I kept going right past, changing my mind. I was tired after a long week. I seemed so often so tired. The heat, the travel, the heavy food, something hormonal. Besides, what would we have in common? She was a beautiful, young woman, a female entrepreneur in this godforsaken machismo town. She had to be interesting, and she did speak English pretty well, I recalled, from our first meeting months ago. But I was the disheveled middle-aged Peace Corps volunteer doing my white savoir thing while this gal was living a real life. I looked down at my Teva feet, a mess. What would she want to do with a gringa? And wasn’t I just a little bit jealous of her? Or maybe I was scared I might actually start to like her and would have to stop complaining about my lonely plight. I would like her too much and become one of those clingy friends that expected to spend all our free time, of which I had a LOT, together. Though I’d never been a friend like that, here she’d been my one and only, so the pressure would be on. And although she wasn’t married, surely she had novios in every corner of town, plus a boatload of family, being that she was a Rioverde native. So when she wasn’t running the bar she’d be busy with all of them.

     I had reached a point of desperation.

     I doubled back, pulling-up to the curb and leaning across the sidewalk. It was hard to see a thing through the tinted glass, the evils of alcohol safely out of sight and mind. The mariachi music whined. Maybe it was seedy. Maybe women weren’t allowed, as was the case with all the cantinas around town. If you were there you were a hooker.

    I straightened my front wheel; but before I could peddle away I heard a voice.

   ‘Anna, bienvenidos.’ The door swung open and there was Rita, smiling, with hands on her hips, as if she’d been expecting me and I was late.

On weekends in Ptown, I work from the bungalow. All is quiet today and the sky is piercing blue. The sea grass sways out my window. I type away. I’d promised myself a break for a run and, by 3, the light has already left the living room. It sinks fast this far north, this time of year.

I save my document, then pull on my tights, lace up my shoes, zip-up my jacket, and bolt. My body is stiff from sitting in a chair all week. I plod along the shore road toward the jetty. My mind keeps writing; so I hardly notice the halcyon maritime scene before me: expansive water, sky, dunes of windswept sand.

Not until I cut back do I really see it, over my right shoulder: the orange ball of sun hangs over the velvet blue sea, and for the first time all day, determination gives way to a smile. Over my left shoulder, a swatch of cloud like a fat rat’s tail streaks the pale blue sky and a three-quarter moon grins at me. 

I have an idea: that thing-finder day with Rita at Los Ojitos, I pick up my pace and the muse chases me the last mile home.

I’ve had my break. The bell is sounding and it’s time to get back to the factory.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Dia dos Muertos Moments - November 2, 2011

In the public cemetery, in Santiago de Queretaro, I hide behind mausoleums, snapping private moments. A woman bends over a grave, clipping the grass that’s grown wild over her father’s head; a man digs into the earth planting marigolds, bursts of orange  
bright enough to attract 
the spirits back.

A baby girl, the next generation, plays peek-a-boo between marble urns. Young men carry buckets of water from the well to the gravesites, 10 pesos to cleanse your tomb, honor your dead.

It’s a big day for the mariachis. 50, 100, 200 pesos a canción. Families are happy to pay a hefty price to conjure the ghosts of their loved-ones. Duos, trios, quartets cluster around the grave-sites playing happy songs with somber faces, as family members sing along, tears filling their eyes, remembering the time their mama danced to that tune.

I’m a voyeur; but I come out from the shadows to buy my own songs. I have dead loved ones too. I choose a trio: accordion, guitar, and upright base. I request Cielito Lindo, little beautiful sky, for my cousin, Jonny Copp, who died the summer before getting too close to the clouds. At age 35, climbing virgin peaks on the border between China and Tibet, he was buried alive in an avalanche.

Ay, yai yai yai, can-ta, no llores. Sing, don’t cry.

A couple lays a picnic upon a freshly washed marble grave: an embroidered cloth, plates of warm tamales wrapped in corn husks, and cabritos of tequila, little tiny shots of fire that take their sorrow away.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

No Crying Allowed in Choro - Rio Meets MtP DC

On Saturday night the energy of Rio filled my Mount Pleasant row house. Furniture cleared-out, carpets rolled-up, my dining room was transformed into a salon de choro; and my guests and I were treated to a concert and masterclass on this special, antecedent genre of Brazilian music.

After the first lively, toe-tapping tune, in a question-answer with the musicians, we in the audience were surprised to discover that this choro music was originally composed and played in the late 19th century.  It sounded so modern, so 21st century.  

Choro, which means cry in Portuguese, the band members explained, was rooted in the compositions of Ernesto Nazareth, a pianist from Rio de Janeiro, who was highly influenced by Chopin. He blended African and European rhythms to create a unique and danceable sound he called ‘Brazilian tango’, and began his career playing his pieces in cafes, at balls and society parties and in the lobbies of movie theaters. 

Despite the name, choro music actually has a happy, upbeat rhythm characterized by sometimes complex syncopations, counterpoints and improvisations. Another theory on the name choro is that it derives from the term choromeleiro, which were slave ensembles hired out for parties during the colonial era. 

Apparently, there’s no crying allowed in choro!

We definitely were not crying on Saturday night. Our band leader, Rogerio Souza, guitarist and master of the choro style, also a Carioca (native of Rio), had arranged all the pieces on the program, many of which were Nazareth’s (which he pronounced Nazaray).  

The band, comprised of Souza on lead seven-string guitar, his protégé Edinho Gerber also on guitar, Leonardo Lucini, Brazilian-born local on seven-string bass, Andy Connell, professor of music at James Madison, and the ever-magnanimous Gigi Rezende MacLaughlin on rebolo drum, was a marvel of improvisational energy. They handled the complex, syncopated rhythms masterfully, handing the baton smoothly from one lead to the next, and filling my house (with no amplification necessary) with this happy, virtuoso sound.

The audience responded with reverence, leaning forward in their chairs, hanging like lovers on every note, and at times, unable to contain a response, ohhing, ahhing and clapping after solos to egg the musicians on. It was that symbiosis between creation and appreciation that makes one feel part of something bigger – certainly bigger than a little, intimate house concert in Mount Pleasant.

But by the last tune of the night, after a few glasses of wine and two sets of sublime choro, it was too hard to contain the energy any longer.  Gigi’s drum beating,  20-strings strumming, and Andy’s horn wailing, we spectators were up on our feet, moving our limbs on my tiny dining room dance floor. 

It was a tune by Baden Powell, a more modern choro composer, called Lapinha, which refers to a favela in Salvador, Bahia. The lyrics, by Paulo César Pinheiro, say:  ‘When I die, bury me in Lapinha.’ In myth, Baden Powell, who died in 2000, got his wish; but in fact, as Professor Connell points out, Powell was buried in São João Batista cemetery in Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro.

Catch Rogerio Souza’s choro combo on Friday night at Montpelier Arts Center in Laurel, MD before he departs for the Midwest and West Coast. You’ll be glad you did. Tickets at

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Coming Clean

Today I’m coming clean with you, dear readers, and with myself. I’m not going to complete My Mexico Book by the end of the summer, or even by the end of this year.
This writing process is taking its own damn time. 
It reminds me of a hiking trip I took, years ago, along the Na Pali Coast, on the island of Kauai. It was hours of climbing before I reached the summit where the overlook was presumably one of the most spectacular in the world. But a bank of fog had rolled in and sat heavy. All I could see was an expanse of white nothingness, not the slightest sign of life below, no matter how hard I squinted. It was a huge disappointment.
After some food and a short rest, I turned to hike home and, just then, in my periphery, caught a tiny glimpse of green. I fixed my gaze; and second by second, the curtain of fog gradually drew, revealing a dizzying scene, not just a valley, but a valley of valleys, lush accordion folds of land stretching horizontally beyond my vision and cascading down into an endless indigo sea. With more illumination came the definition of individual palm trees, then the fronds themselves, village huts, farm animals and rows of crops, a fine horizon line separating earth and sky, tiny whitecaps gleaming like diamonds and bursting fluffs of cloud above.
This expansive and intricate world was always there; but it took time to reveal itself. (30 years later, incidentally, that image has never left my mind.)
That’s what it feels like writing this book. There’s this bank of fog. The further I get from the action of my Peace Corps Mexico experience, high above it looking down, and the more time I spend in the chair patiently writing through the haze, the more I begin to see what my book is really about. And then the writing flows.
Anne Dillard, in The Writing Life, puts it this way:
"It takes years to write a book – between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant…Falkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks. He claimed he wrote it in his spare time from a 12-hour-a-day manual labor job. Some people lift cars too. Others go over Niagara Falls in barrels or fly planes through the Arc de Triumph…Out of a human population on earth of four and a half billion, only about 20 can write a serious book in a year. There is no call to take human extremes as norms.”
This does not mean I’m letting myself off the hook with my Mexico book, just relieving some pressure, allowing the process to do its thing. Here’s what I am doing to encourage it along:
  • Cut-back my SeeChange consulting work in March, taking-on only a few select coaching and facilitation clients through the end of the year in order to maintain focus on the book.
  • Following a schedule of writing 6 days a week, 3 to 5 hours a day, employing the butt-in-chair approach, regardless of the weather or barometric pressure.
  • Completed a writing class at The Writers Center in Bethesda and came away with some helpful and lots of challenging feedback on the manuscript. (More on this excruciating experience in my next post.)
  • Admitted to myself (with the help of a good writing friend): I’m still in the DRAFT stage. Being more realistic softens the voice of the critic, allowing space for the ideas to flow.
  • Partnering with this aforementioned writing friend to keep ourselves accountable with weekly goal-setting and progress-reporting Skype sessions. (Still don’t need to get out of my PJs for those.)
  • Researching editors to work with me on my first and subsequent drafts. A big chunk of the Kickstarter campaign funding has been set aside for just this purpose.
Still, dear backers, I did commit during my November 2013 campaign to have the book completed and published LAST summer. 6 months, totally unrealistic! (I should have read Dillard first.) Yet it was a promise.
Therefore, I’m going to let you off the hook by offering to refund your pledge. Please let me know, and I will happily send you your money.
Otherwise, if you're in for the long-haul, and I sure hope you are, I can promise you this: I will have the first two chapters (or up to 100 pages) of the book available to you in PDF format by this Christmas, 2015. And I'll welcome your feedback.
For those whose rewards included social gathering/sustainability events, stay tuned for save-the-date announcements for the fall.
I’m learning a lot through this process about integrity and commitment – it’s not just about the creativity. Huh, it's my Peace Corps sustainability lessons all over again.
Many thanks for your continued support.  More to come!
What's your reaction to my 'coming clean' proposal? What do you think about time and the creative process? 
What experiences have you had with your own creative projects?
 Your questions and comments are encouraged.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Kill Your Darlings

It’s been a while since my last Kickstarter update.  (Sound like the beginning of a confession?) Well, I’ve got good news to report. No, I’m not quite done with my book. But I have emerged out of the Survive section and into Thrive.

Pfew. It was a long haul. Like being stuck in the Molasses Swamp, that first year of my service was messy. Turns out it’s been almost as difficult to write my way through it as to have lived it!

Now that I’m getting into the rhythm of Thrive, I’m discovering: this is the story. I’m in the flow of the narrative for the first time since I started my book. And here's the tough truth: It’s possible that all I’ve written so far, over the past two years, does not belong in this book.

It may very well be BACKstory.

What is backstory, you ask? It’s the circumstantial detail that leads up to and supports the primary narrative.

The question is: Where does my Mexico story really begin? Try this:

     Why was it we always went a little further? Past the pobre but slightly cheery pueblito, a few cows and pigs and chickens in the yards, meat a sign of affluence; a road of dirt, but smooth and tree-lined for at least a block or two; a prim escuela with a painted swing set out back and a flat, pink, cutout adobe church with saint’s day fiesta flags flapping in the breeze.

     ‘Is this it?’ I asked the engineers, squirming like an impatient kid in the backseat.

      ‘Todovia no,’ they shook their heads. ‘Pero cerca.’

      Close. But by then we’d already been on the road for three hours, traveling east from Rioverde along the rim of the San Ciro flood plain, through the cutout in the mountain, then north at the Rayon crossroads, deep into the rocky arid lands where nothing grew but spikey things – pitaya, yucca, nopal – the camels of the plant world. The roads were eerily vacant out there except for an occasional pair of muchachos, baking in the sun, filling potholes with dirt and hoping for some pesos in return for their service.

     ‘Never stop for these guys, Anna,’ Bibiano warned me. ‘Es peligroso.’

     But when we got to the Federale roadblock, we had no choice but to pull over. I held my breath as the camouflaged men with machine guns over their shoulders and masks covering their faces questioned the engineers. A separate crew circled the truck, inspecting the undercarriage with mirrors. Supposedly a sign that the government had things under control, these checkpoints only reminded me there was a problem; and it was creeping south into my state. Who really knew how much longer Uncle Sam would allow me to carry-on here? When they waved us on, I exhaled, hoping I’d never have occasion to travel out here alone.

      This was my first trip to Zamachihue, an ejido community in the northeast corner of the Scotty Dog state, on the Tamulipus border, in the municipio of Ciudad de Maiz. ‘Neither a city nor do they grow corn,’ the engineers pointed out, chuckling at their irony.

      Bibiano took a hard right off the main drag and descended into a dry arroyo that could have swallowed us up, or pitched us over, our tires spinning on the loose clay. I gripped my handle tighter and felt the sweat rise on my brow. I’d never been a particularly pacific passenger; but this was beginning to feel like a test. The shade trees had disappeared, the breeze had stopped, and the sun burned the vacant plain littered with rocks. Our radio signal faded and all that was left was static. That’s when we hit a hole that threw me upward, my head banging the roof and my stomach plummeting.

     I felt a metallic taste rise in my mouth. ‘Pare!’ I yelled, opening my door as the truck skidded to a stop and expelling my breakfast onto the ground.

     One of the engineers passed me a handkerchief to wipe my mouth.

     When I looked up, there was the sign, rusted and dangling from a crooked post like something out of a Luis Estrada film. ‘Za-ma-chee-hwee.’ I’d written the name phonetically in my notebook.

     By the time we pulled-up to the vivero and parked in the tiny patch of shade offered by a scraggly mesquite tree, it seemed like we’d just reached the last effing pueblito on earth.

Maybe that’s the beginning.

Not the wintery night at Guapo’s in DC, drinking margaritas with my RPCV pal Beth and deciding, YES, damn-it, I’m going to apply to the Peace Corps. Nor is it my bright-eyed arrival in Mexico City eight months later or my three beginner’s mind months of Peace Corps training. It may not even be my entire first roller-coaster year as a volunteer, adapting to life in my new desert pueblito.

What if ALL that was backstory? It would mean I’d have to seriously ‘kill some darlings’ in order to give you readers the real meat. Sage advice from William Faulkner, it speaks to the many favorite moments and turns of phrase we've crammed in, pruned and polished. But if they don’t serve the story, advance the plot, get your darn character to the finish line, they’ve got to go.

Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. Right now, I have to JUST KEEP GOING. This is my guiding mantra, scribbled on a purple post-it and stuck on the cover of my writing folder so I see it every day.

There will be time to go back and reread and rewrite, edit and chop and prune. But not right now. Not until I write through to the end.

So I’m strapping on my Chocos. It’s time to get back out to the campo with the Engeneiros and get those seeds planted.
Dear readers, please post a comment. What do you say about darlings? Where does the story begin for you?  What do you need to know about your fearless/ful narrator?