Friday, December 2, 2011

“…it’s undergoing review!”

Those three little words from a literary agent carry such weight, such hope. I’m buoyed for days, even weeks. And there’s that perky little exclamation point at the end. What secret message of encouragement is it meant to convey?

As a child, whenever I complained about too much silence from my older siblings away at college or I worried because Dad was late from work, Mom’s comment was always the same: No news is good news. And so, as I enter the agent search for a second time in hopes of landing a home for my new memoir, I keep my mother’s words in the back of my head.

The first time around, when I sought publication for The Thirty-Ninth Victim, it was a largely USPS process – expensive and cumbersome. Not only did you have to print and mail the materials, but also include that awful Self Addressed Stamped Envelope for the return of rejected materials. I learned to dread getting the mail. But at least I knew when my work was rejected. I had physical evidence.

With electronic submissions I have learned that one must read agent submission guidelines more carefully than ever before. No news is good news no longer holds weight in a world where on-line guidelines include some version of the statement: If you haven’t heard from us within 3 weeks, assume that we are not interested. You’d think they could simply send an It’s not for me email. And some agents do. But many do not. So even if the writer maintains a neat little Excel spreadsheet to track submissions, in the absence of careful reading, said writer may find herself waiting longer than any reasonable person would wait in hopes of a positive response. On the other hand, if a writer reads each and every detail (more than once) – as I have now learned to do – she still waits. But then, after the appropriate time has elapsed, she scratches that agent’s name and submits to another to keep her active submissions list at a nice even dozen.

Given this world of electronic silence, any response – even a rejection – I welcome. (Is it just me, or are there others who feel that an email, like a letter or a phone message, deserves a response?) So when an agent requests the full manuscript, my heart swells. And when I open my email to the words “…it’s undergoing review!” I still use my mother’s words of comfort as I wait and wait and wait with fingers crossed. No news is good news, I tell myself as I imagine my manuscript moving from computer to computer, hand to hand (does anyone print hardcopies anymore?), meeting to meeting, slowly climbing that humble path to publication.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Defining American

Fall has arrived in Seattle, and I’m back in the classroom: my microcosm of immigration. I’ve been following the story of Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist whose article in the New York Times Magazine on June 22, 2011 told of his illegal immigration to the United States at age 12. Despite telling his truth – a decision made because living the lie became harder than facing the consequences of telling the truth – Vargas has yet to be picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As he waits for ICE to knock down his door, he has dedicated himself to building a conversation around immigration reform in the United States. And as the Dream Act continues to flounder, Vargas asks us what it means to be American on his website: I’ve asked my student to read Vargas’s story and to meet his challenge by writing their own definitions of “American.” This is not an easy assignment. I decided I should try it myself…

I am not one who believes much in national borders: artificial lines drawn and redrawn in the dirt by warring parties throughout the ages. The word “American” is equally problematic. Used to define those holding the coveted U.S. passport, it is a misnomer I have struggled with since my early years in high school geography class when I questioned if Canadians and Mexicans were also called Americans. Later, during my ex-pat years in Latin America, I struggled to get my tongue around Estadunidense because I quickly learned that use of the word Americana was offensive to some. In Mexico, when still others reminded me that they too were Estadunidenses given that the legal name of Mexico is the Estados Unidos Mexicanos, I would smile and quote Gertrude Stein: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” At times I claimed Canadian citizenship just to avoid conflict as I continued to work both with and without documents on the southern side of the U.S. border.

In today’s world of political and economic crisis, of failed immigration reform, child deportations and apples rotting in the vast orchards of Eastern Washington, use of the word American becomes more than a mere question of semantics. Jose Antonio Vargas defines American “…as someone who works really hard. Someone who’s proud to be in this country and wants to contribute to society.” I am comfortable with this definition. This land that we claim as the United States of America was taken from the native people by hordes of immigrants from around the globe. What right do any of us children of immigrants have to slam the immigration door behind us? The reasons for immigrating to this land given by our parents, grandparents or the ancestors before them are no more valid than those given by today’s immigrants.

I know those reasons. I work with immigrants – both documented and undocumented. I listen to their stories, and I am present in their pain. Few immigrants leave home and loved ones, culture and language to face an uncertain future in a foreign land unless under extreme duress. There are no easy solutions to the huge immigration mess this country is experiencing, but building a wall won’t work and ripping families apart is immoral. Undocumented immigrants come from around the world, and yet the target continues to be on the backs of those from Mexico, and by extension all Latin Americans because we seem unable to distinguish between Mexicans, Central Americans and South Americans. Interesting how easily we distinguish between Latinos and Canadians.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Choosing to Remember

Maureen would be 48 today. Her hair would be streaked with hints of gray. She’d be seeing life with the perspective of maturity, the patterns of her life well-established. Would Maureen be an empty-nester this autumn, her children off to college, her home a silent shell of the family life once contained within its walls? Would she have a career, the career in early childhood education she was studying for? Would she be working in a pre-school, now the experienced, wise teacher or director, now the funny, gentle soul that younger, inexperienced teachers turned to for advice and direction?

How do you imagine a sister’s life that was taken violently at 19? And how do you let go of the pain without forgetting, while still holding tight to those precious moments of childhood? I hold tight to the images of Maureen with bouncy, blond ringlets, Maureen in her Blue Birds uniform, Maureen, her blond hair now cropped short, soaking up the rays on a Mexican beach.

Violent death of a loved one cannot be forgotten, put aside, blocked without consequences – physical or emotional. My mother turned 87 two weeks before Maureen’s 48th. Though her physical health is remarkable, she no longer remembers that I was once her middle child, the middle of nine; that she once had a daughter who was viciously murdered. Perhaps that is the blessing of dementia, the silver lining – to lose the pain. But with it she has also lost the memories of joy and love, the experiences garnered in her long life.

I choose to remember – all of it. And on this day, I choose to celebrate my sister’s short life. We can choose to embrace life’s joys and gifts or sink into the mire of pain and regret. Though a memoirist, I don’t live in the past, but I do remember the past. I cherish the memories both glorious and horrific because they form the bulk of who I am. I choose to remember it all because I believe that by blocking this painful memory or that one, we also lose the neighboring memories of joy, of excitement, of that last trip to Puerto Vallarta together.

I am grateful to have known Maureen for the 19 years of her short life. Perhaps we’ll cross paths again someday. Perhaps we already have.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


I pulled myself out of bed Sunday morning, poured a cup of steaming black coffee and stumbled into my writing room. I used to be one of those people who jump out of bed, rested, alert, looking good and ready to face a new day full of energy and vigor. Not anymore. Now I struggle to fall asleep, struggle to wake up and would be hard pressed to find anyone who’d say I looked good first thing in the morning.

Cup in hand, I leaned over my desk and switched on my laptop – a morning routine repeated every day of the year. I sank into the desk chair and stared at the creamy yellow wall in front of me. A beep from the computer told me to key in my password. A few taps and I waited. A squirrel scavenged for hazelnut fragments in the shelled picnic area under the overgrown cherry tree. A serious pruning and one more year before decide what to do with the monster. I clicked on Outlook and took a few more sips of hot coffee, willing myself awake, alert.

Outlook opened, and Renee Zuckerbrot was in my Inbox. I’d submitted the query less than 24 hours prior. In less than 24 hours this literary agent in New York opened her own Inbox and looked over my synopsis, bio and first chapter. Her decision: “Moving Mom isn't a good fit for my list.”

I was stunned. This world of email queries was new to me. Less than half dozen years ago when I was querying The Thirty-Ninth Victim few agents accepted on-line submissions, making the process costly, slow and wasteful. Here I had a response, albeit not the response I wanted, in 24 hours and it cost me nothing. Not a single trip to the post office.

I slumped at my desk. Rejection. Such a harsh word. I decided to search for a positive spin. What good comes in an agent’s rejection? At least she read it, I thought. Or, at least she read enough to know it wasn’t a manuscript she’d be successful representing. And that’s what any writer wants, isn’t it? An agent who is as passionate about the work as the writer herself. An agent who feels a strong enough connection to the piece to know she’ll be able to place it with just the right publishing house.

Another positive lies in the quality of the response. Renee Zuckerbrot responded not only with courtesy and respect, but she also included a list of on-line, searchable agent databases to help me locate an agent who might be a better match for my work. A rejection that offers that type of advice and encouragement is definitely a positive.

There could be as many agents as there are writers, and it may be a bit like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack to find the right match, but I’ll put a dozen queries into cyberspace. With each rejection, I’ll narrow my search, blowing the chafe from the stalk, moving the haystack one handful at a time until the needle pricks my finger, until I wake one morning, pour my coffee, click on my computer and find an offer of representation.

For those who are interested, here are the websites that Rene Zuckerbrot suggested: 

AAR online:
Agent in a Box:
The Agent Database at Poets &Writers:*

Saturday, August 13, 2011


I titled my last post “Seat Time,” a term used in education (hours in the classroom which may or may not lead to learning) and in writing (hours needed to create anything of quality.) The appropriate title for that blog entry would have been “Saddle Time,” hence the correction below. A quick Google search of saddle time shows references to bikes, motorcycles and horses.

My apologies to those educators who know that seat time has nothing to do with anything on two wheels or four legs, to writers aware of the impossibility of creating a decent piece of writing without endless hours of seat time, and to the bikers who had a good laugh at my ignorance. I’ll see you at STP next year.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Saddle Time (formerly Seat Time)

Regularity without some metaphysical value behind it, some beauty of soul or character, was more disappointing – and indeed repulsive – than the honestly haphazard, the humanly messy. It was more disappointing because it promised something that was not there: it should engage the soul, but did not. It was shallow and meretricious.
44 Scotland Street, Alexander McCall Smith, p. 219

My first purchase was a guitar, the second a bicycle. The guitar is still stashed in the attic four decades later. The bike is gone. I remember it as a yellow, drop bar, ten-speed. I was a high school senior, living in my parents’ home at the top of Tiger Mountain. Like most teenagers, I was driven by a strong desire for independence and a total lack of funds. I didn’t have a car and there was no bus service, so I landed my first job at Clampitt’s Cleaners and bought a bike from the Issaquah Hardware Store. The summer after graduation I rode that bike seven miles to and from work along the narrow, rough shoulders of the Issaquah-Hobart Road with traffic whipping by at fifty. I don’t remember a helmet.

I’ve ridden a bit off and on through the years, but never considered myself a biker, never commuted to work by bike, never participated in long distance, organized rides. A lifetime has passed since that younger version of me rode a bike to her first job. Maybe two or three.

In late May, I was walking Alki Beach with a friend. It’s a weekly routine that we both cherish: a long walk followed by a beer at the local Irish pub.
“I’ve signed us up for the Seattle to Vancouver ride,” she said.

“Us?” I asked.

“The whole family.”

“Do they know it yet?”

“I thought it would be a good way to get in shape this summer,” she said, a laugh in her voice and a mischievous twinkle in her dark eyes.
She told me it was a two-day ride, similar to the well-known Seattle to Portland ride, but north bound instead of south and in August rather than July. I’d never heard of it.

“We’ll be riding every weekend,” she said. “Why don’t you join us?”

“Sounds like fun,” I said. “The weekend rides anyway. I’m not so sure about the whole group ride thing. And I’m definitely not up to riding two hundred miles.”

That evening I started googling. I wanted to learn what I could about the ride and about how to prepare for it. I found a training schedule that outlined regular rides three times weekly with target distances beginning in February. We were already four months behind schedule, and I was a good fifteen pounds overweight. Despite regular walks and gym workouts, I was out of shape. I knew that the two-day ride was out of the question, but the exercise sounded like a great idea.

After the first twenty-mile ride, my husband decided he was having none of it. A gentle ten miles on a designated path was fine, but accumulating miles and seat time for an artificial goal made no sense to him. He had better things to do with those hours. But I continued to ride three days a week through June and July.

Now it’s August and each challenge, every hill, has given me greater confidence. I no longer fear living at the top of a hill. I know I can ride it. My quads burn. My knees talk to me. I’ve found muscles and bones I didn’t know I had. But I keep riding.

I’ve always considered myself a very alert person, but with biking I am developing a level of awareness surpassing anything I’ve ever known. But still there are surprises.

A little girl stopped in front of me as I rode the Seattle waterfront. Pink dress, blond curls, she seemed no taller than my front tire.

Her family crossed in front of me from the parking lot to the waterfront attractions. Hands poised on my brakes, I slowed, but there was plenty of space. Then, something caught the child’s attention. She paused. I braked hard and landed on my handle bars. Skidding to a stop, the edge of my front tire grazed one sparkling sandal. Her eyes met mine, round and blue.

“Are you okay?” the father asked me through his cigarette smoke.
“Are you okay?” I asked the child. She nodded to me, and I rode off.

“Look what you did. You’ve got to watch where you’re going.” I heard the father scold the child as I rode away. I smiled thinking of her wide eyes, her nod. I hope she holds tight to her curiosity, to her understanding, to her forgiveness.

Each ride opens my eyes to the city in ways I’ve never seen it before. I often ride Alaskan Way from West Seattle to downtown. A towering wall of shipping containers line the rail tracks on one side, cranes tower above me on the other. The bike lane is rough, uneven and checkered with detours for road construction – a new off-ramp from the West Seattle Bridge, prep work for the tunnel designed to replace the unstable north-south viaduct by boring through the same unstable tide flats that the viaduct is built on.

I ride Alaskan Way through dust and exhaust fumes and think about my ride the day before along the Sammamish River, the sun warm on my back, the sweet fragrance of rugosa roses and fresh cut grass floating on a soft breeze. I remember the words of McCall Smith, words that made such an impression I copied them into the small notebook I use for those ideas that I don’t want to let slip away.

McCall Smith expressed a sentiment I was never able to put into my own words: that more beauty can be found in the haphazard grit and grime of hard work and daily life than in the idealized perfection of a materialized world. For while I loved the natural beauty of the slow moving Sammamish River with tall grasses lining its shores, the open fields once dotted with large dairy herds, and the musical call of a gold finch perched on an overhead branch, the picture perfect condos along certain strips of the trail and the looming reality of Redmond Town Centre, an upscale world of commercial materialism, just beyond the long row of tall cottonwoods swaying in the gentle breeze, made me uncomfortable.

As I wave a morning greeting to the immigrants fishing off the Harbor Island dock, as I ride past the homeless waking under the overpasses, some in semi-established tent homes, others under nothing more than a pile of ratty blankets, I feel the pulse – and messiness – of human life.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Goals on the First Day of Summer

 “Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost. That idea is hard to accept. We all have an emotional equity in our first draft; we can’t believe that it wasn’t born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 percent that it wasn’t.”
William Zinsser, On Writing Well (p. 83)

In life, as in writing, reaching a goal without a tremendous amount of rewriting is an impossible task. I watch immigrant and refugee students rewrite their lives each day with their commitment to learning English, adapting to a new land, setting new goals for themselves and their families. As I sat on the stage of Benaroya Hall in downtown Seattle last Thursday for the South Seattle Community College graduation ceremony, I was thinking these thoughts, thinking about how these students in front of me, their faces painted with the joy of accomplishment, were rewriting their own destinies and perhaps the future of their families as well. When President Gary Oertli asked those graduates who were the first in their families to attend college to stand, it seemed that at least half the graduating class was on their feet. The audience went wild with applause. My hands stung. These are graduates who are indeed rewriting the future by reaching for and achieving goals that at one time may have seemed impossible, and perhaps even unnecessary.

As I sat and watched the graduates cross the stage, my thoughts began to wander. I started to think about my own goals. I had thought that I’d spend the summer focused solely on the first rewrite of my current manuscript because despite my emotional attachment to each and every single typed word, phrase, sentence and scene, I know perfection has eluded me. But, as always, there are distractions. A writer friend sent me information about a contest that might be a perfect match for that unpublished novel of mine. Another writer friend suggested I apply for a writing residency, but the dreaded Artist’s Statement is a requirement of the application process. A third writer friend sent me a list of agents to contact as I begin the query process to find a home for my new memoir.

The more personal temptations in life also possess a strong pull. Friends have invited me to train with them for the Seattle to Vancouver bike ride in early August – training that sadly should be well underway by now. And then there’s the wonderful distraction of summer visitors and the tempting appeal of a summer road trip; there’s the siren song of stacks of books waiting to be read while swinging gently in the hammock strung in the shade of the magnolia and the red bud. So, like those students graduating last Thursday, I need to rewrite my priorities and hone my focus in order to reach the goals I set for myself as the morning sun glows on this first day of summer.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Costs of Immigration

Saturday evening. I sit at our heavy dining room table, a stack of papers in front of me, a grade book to the side, another stack still in my book bag. The life of a teacher. The light is soft, the walls warm sienna. I hear the sounds of water in the kitchen as Tom prepares a late dinner of salad and fresh crab. My daughter’s boyfriend, Elliot, sits at the opposite end of the table, protractor and pen in his hands, doing his homework. I am reading “practice” scholarship applications - an exercise I have my upper level ESL students do in preparation for college, in preparation for the long arduous task of finding funding to cover the rising costs of a community college education.

We live in a culture that demands we bare our souls – and our economic urgencies – before help is offered. I feel embarrassed, intrusive, as I as read these personal documents of income and expenses, these narratives of struggle to overcome unbearable odds that have led these students to my classroom.

I teach immigrants and refugees at a community college in Seattle. This quarter I have a group of 23 students from 16 different nations. This is not unusual. My college serves one of the most ethnically diverse zip codes in the country. The average age on my campus is 36. This too is reflected in the range of ages in my students. Diversity stares me in the face every morning at 8:00 a.m. But there is also hidden diversity that is easily overlooked or ignored in a culture like ours that does not want to think about social class, that prefers to think of itself as a classless society in a global economy.

“So here’s one,” I say. “A family of 3 living on $700 a month. And here’s another. A family of 6 on $550 a month.”

“How can they do it?” Elliot asks.

“I don’t know. Multiple families in single-family homes,” I say. “They’re survivors. Not like the TV show, but the real thing. These people have been through hell and they know how to live on nothing.”

I look around me. The soft chandelier overhead, the billowing curtains hung on handcrafted iron rods, the leather love seat on the plush rug, the paintings on the walls. I imagine the full refrigerator and packed cupboards in the adjacent kitchen. By American standards, I do not live an opulent life. I live on a teacher’s salary with an artist husband. And yet, I think of these students who struggle each day for survival while I live my life sheltered by the cloak of privilege – white middle class privilege.

These feelings – guilt, anger, sadness – are not new. I have been teaching refugees and immigrants for over twenty years. Still, the reminders hit hard each quarter with each student paper, and I wonder. Do I push too hard? Do I expect too much of people on the edge? Yet these students know, just as I know, that only through education will they overcome the challenges of war and hunger, illiteracy and prejudice. Only with an education will they find comfort in this new land. In their narratives, all express gratitude despite the hardships they face each day. Gratitude for the opportunities they find in this new home – if not for themselves, at least for their children. These opportunities, easily taken for granted, are what made leaving behind all they knew and loved – homeland, language, culture, food, family, friends – worth the loss.

I pick up another application: a family of 4 living on a monthly budget of $325. My heart swells with respect and I am honored to hold their stories in my hands.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

An invitation...

I'm looking forward to reading at the Ballard Library this Thursday evening where I'll have the pleasure of sharing the podium with several wonderful writers and friends. Below I've attached the information from the library website. If you're in the Seattle area, I hope you'll be able to join us. And bring a 3-minute piece to share during open mic!

'It's About Time Writers' Reading Series' 
Ballard Public Library 

Thursday, Apr. 14, 2011, 6 – 7:45 p.m.

Event typeAuthor Readings/Lectures
WhereBallard Branch
AudienceTeens, Adults
SummaryThe Ballard Branch welcomes the 258th meeting of the "It's About Time Writers' Reading Series," featuring author readings and open mikes.
Full DescriptionThis month's presentation features the work of Mike Hickey, Don Harmon and Corbin Lewars, with a short lecture by Arleen Williams on The Writer's Craft. Between author readings, open mike time is available for three minutes per person.
Event NotesLibrary events and programs are free and everyone is welcome. Registration is not required.
Contact InfoBallard Branch 206-684-4089 or Ask a Librarian

Saturday, March 26, 2011

For Judi

Judi Bond
December 11, 1952 – March 24, 2011

I was raised Catholic – at least through my early teens – but haven’t been to mass in years. I no longer believe, perhaps never believed, in the rituals of organized religion. And yet throughout my years living in Mexico and travels in Europe, the Catholic church was always a place to go for quiet rest and reflection, for peace and refuge. The doors were always open to those in need of a place to sit for a few moments or a few hours.

Yesterday I received word of the the death of a dear friend, a woman I knew and loved during our shared lives as expats in Mexico in the 1980s. A friend who returned to her home in England with her young son only shortly before I moved back to Seattle. We remained in contact through the years – long rambling letters back before email, holiday and birthday cards. Judi never missed a birthday, mine or that of my daughter. Yesterday my daughter, now twenty-one, said, “I loved her birthday cards. I always looked forward to opening them.”

Judi came to Seattle only once. June 1998. We took a girls’ road trip down the Oregon coast and hiked the dunes. We went white water river rafting and attended a play in the Elizabethan theater of the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. Judi spent her life in theater – teaching, acting, directing. The trip was perfection.

Last winter, when I learned that Judi was fighting cancer, I decided to spend June in England. She met me at Heathrow, and I recognized her by her eyes. Brilliant blue vibrant eyes. Her body had changed. Once plump, Judi was not only thin, but somehow smaller than I remembered her. Still, she was energetic, and she wanted an adventure. We met another friend from our Mexico years and spent a long weekend in London together: Judi, Leandra and me. We hadn’t been together in twenty-five years, but it was as though we’d never separated. It was as though we were in our twenties again. We talked of our lives, present and past. We laughed about writing a book together, even choosing a title: The Ex-Mexican Wives Club.

After London, Judi and I did another road trip together, this time to the east coast of northern England, Edinburgh, Loch Lomond, the Lake District. We stumbled into an art gallery in Judi’s hometown of Birmingham, surprised by a Bob Dylan show, and bought matching prints: Rose on a Hillside. By the time we returned to her home in Cheltenham, Judi was tired, but happy. I hoped she was truly in remission, that she had fought and won. But nine months later, Judi lost the battle.

When I learned the news yesterday morning, I was lost in the universal pain and sorrow of grief for a friend, a woman who will not see her son’s wedding, will never hold her future grandchildren. It was a beautiful day in Seattle – bright blue sky, pink cherry blossoms, yellow daffodils. The sweet fragrance of spring was in the air. I wandered my neighborhood trying to walk away the pain. I walked to exhaustion and still felt troubled, a heavy sadness settling into my bones. I’d been calling England every other weekend or so since last summer, not wanting to lose the close connection we’d reestablished during those long driving hours last June. We talked of dreams. “What’s on your bucket list?” I asked during a recent call.
“More travel,” she said without pause.
 “Where?” I asked.
“Southern Italy,” she said, her voice dreamy and soft. “I’ve never been to southern Italy.”
I wanted to make that trip a reality this summer but that too was taken from Judi.

As I walked the streets blindly until I passed Holy Rosary, the local Catholic church – a church I have not entered in the many years I’ve lived in West Seattle – an old urge returned. I longed for the cool quiet of an empty church, the filtered light through stained glass windows, the heavy smell of candles and incense. I wanted to find that gentle peace of acceptance. I tried the side door. Locked. I tried the front doors. Locked. I stood for a moment, surprised and disappointed. Solace denied. I could not sit in meditative silence. I could not light a candle for my dear friend. I didn’t know that churches were locked. I remembered entering churches on a recent trip to the east coast. Is it only tourist churches that remain unlocked during the day?

Disappointed, I walked home. There, I gathered a few photographs of those I have lost: my dear friend, Judi; my writing partner, Sandra E. Jones; my sister, Maureen, my father. I collected a few mementos: a jade ring, a tiny theatrical mask, a Celtic medallion, a candle. I arranged my tokens on the corner of a bookcase in my writing room under a red T-shirt shaped lamp that once belonged to Sandra, and I lit the candle for my most recent lost loved one. For Judi. 

Monday, February 21, 2011


This piece appeared in The Seattle Times on March 4, 2011, under the title, "The painful legacy of Gary Ridgway." It also appeared at

Saturday, February 19, 2011. The face of my sister’s killer fills the front page of The Seattle Times. Again. Older now, balding, his expression somehow more menacing than in the 2001 photographs. His orange prison jumpsuit stark against the gray background jumps from the six by eight inch photograph. My morning coffee sloshes as once again I begin my day by reliving the horror of my sister’s murder.

“The nation’s most prolific killer marked his 62nd birthday Friday by pleading guilty to his 49th murder." A birthday gift to Gary Ridgway. Another notch on his belt. I remember other birthdays. I remember the November 30, 2001 arrest on my father’s eightieth birthday. I remember that my sister would be forty seven today if not for this man. Ridgway claims over seventy victims but has been convicted of only forty nine murders – those whose remains have been found.

I wonder how many times other teenagers have stumbled across remains just like those who found Becky Marrero’s skull. I wonder how many times those finds have not been reported because by making a police report, the teens fear they’d have to explain what they were doing in the woods in the first place. I imagine kids partying – drinking, drugs, sex – all the teen vices that would land a kid in trouble. I am grateful to the teens who reported finding Marrero’s remains, just as I was grateful many years ago to those who found my sister.

I read The Seattle Times article and learn that Ridgway was moved from the state penitentiary in Walla Walla to the Regional Justice Center in King County, and I remember the paper I signed. The paper that assured me that I would be notified of any movement of the prisoner, any changes in the conditions of his incarceration. I received no such notification. I do not know when the prisoner will be transported back to Walla Walla. Once again the failures of our legal system haunt me. I am not an abused wife or a key witness to a mob crime. I do not need police protection. But still, I was assured I would be notified, and I was not.

Gary Ridgway confessed to the murder of Becky Marrero over a decade ago. Because her remains had not been found, he could not be convicted of that crime. Still, because of this earlier confession, Ridgway is protected by the plea bargain that spared his life. I understand the anger and pain expressed by Becky Marrero’s sister: “What does it take to get the death penalty in the state of Washington, your honor? It makes me sick to my stomach that he beat the system.” Still, I cannot agree with Mary Marrero. Without the plea bargain, Ridgway would be dead, and she and her family may never have had their day in court. And what about the other thirty one possible victims? Girls, young women, that Ridgway claims to have murdered? With Ridgway’s death, his secrets die and so does the possibility of ever finding the truth behind the disappearances of so many young victims. I would not wish to deprive anyone, any family, of even the slightest possibility of finding the truth behind the disappearance of a loved one.

From a practical sense, what would the death penalty give us? Another couple of decades of legal procedures at the cost of hundreds of thousands of tax dollars? Better to let the man rot in prison. Better to see his aging face on the front page of the newspaper each time the remains of another victim are found and identified. I only ask that I be notified of the prisoner’s movements so I do not have to learn of it from The Seattle Times. And I ask that he not be given anymore outings on his birthday – a bit too much like a gift for someone in solitary confinement.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Painting

Published in Crosscurrents, the annual literary magazine of the Washington Community College Humanities Association,The Painting received the best prose award for 2010. I hope you enjoy the story...

The room was cold: cement block walls, a high ceiling with exposed beams, cracked linoleum over a concrete floor. I was with a friend in a working class neighborhood in the industrial north of Mexico City. The earthquakes of 1985 had not yet leveled large areas of the city, many much like this one, a barrio that saw few young gringa faces.

I stood just inside the metal door, awestruck by the artwork that covered every inch, floor to ceiling, of the ten foot walls. Bold, powerful paintings. I didn’t know how to respond to the work that surrounded me: a Parisian salon in Mexican concrete, a room full of paintings in one of the poorest barrios in the capitol.

My friend had brought me to meet his uncle and aunt, Antonio and Domi, both political activists and talented artists. I tried to follow the conversation as we stood in the first of a string of connected rooms that formed the apartment, one room running into the next through a single door, no wasted space for hallways, no luxury of privacy. My Spanish was good, but still I struggled, comprehension floating just beyond my grasp.

La mesa,” Antonio said.  “The table is all that is needed.”

And, indeed, a large, rough hewn table and a scattering of chairs were the only furniture in the large, cold room. 

La mesa is used for all. For preparing and eating the food. For painting and making the clothes. For love making and sleeping. La mesa is the center of the proletariat life.”

Domi smiled, calm and silent. She excused herself with a nod to cook a simple meal of beans and tortillas in a dark, corner kitchen as I followed my friend and his uncle into the next room. This one was a clutter of books, drawings and political pamphlets. A mimeograph machine stood in the middle of the room. There were several easels and shelves lined with paints. Brushes stood, bristles up, in empty glass jars. I was unable to understand the stream of rapid-fire conversation between the two men and soon lost interest, impatient to return to the first room.

Like most old Mexican buildings, the apartment was dark with few windows.  How was it possible to create such vivid, powerful images in such darkness, I wondered as I slipped back through the open doorway. Intense, haunting paintings in deep, rich, dark oils hung from every wall.  Some in rustic wood frames, others only stretched canvases. Images of campesinos doing fieldwork and obreros in urban factories, street scenes that reached out and grabbed me. These paintings told the story of the life and struggles of the disenfranchised, the working poor, the campesinos who left their subsistence farms to seek a better life in the capitol only to find themselves struggling to survive. Daily life depicted in dark oil with thick, heavy brush strokes. These were the images, the contrasts of wealth and poverty, beauty and squalor, that I struggled to capture in my own black and white photography. I stood overwhelmed by a sense of guilt and dismay before the injustices that stared me in the face.

I moved around room like a sleepwalker, staring at the images, large and small, absorbing, smelling, savoring the world through Antonio’s brushstrokes. I knew nothing of art, only that I was in the presence of immense beauty and unrewarded talent. I lost sense of time until I felt someone at my side.

“Which you like?” Antonio asked.

“All of them,” I whispered.

His deep, hearty laugh startled me.  “Ahhh, but I cannot give you all,” he said. “But one, yes, you take one.”

“I can’t.”

“You must. I sad if you no take.”

These words, spoken in broken English, I understood with total clarity, and I was stunned silent. I knew I couldn’t pay him. I was earning pesos, but often paying tourist prices. More importantly, I knew that even the offer would be an insult.

“Which one?” he insisted.

“That one,” I said. I pointed to a painting I’d returned to several times as I wandered through the room. A campesina wrapped in a reboso, her body round, a cloth bag heavy in the crook of her bent arm. She walked along railroad tracks at the end of a long day. I knew before Antonio told me that Domi had posed for this painting, that Domi posed for many of his paintings.

“You like this one, yes?” Antonio said from behind me as I stared up at the painting.

“Yes,” I said.

I watched in disbelief as he took the painting from the wall where it was tacked to crumbling concrete and handed it to me.  “It is yours,” he said. “Now we eat.”

*          *          *

For almost thirty years that painting has been with me, moving from Mexico City back to Seattle, through divorce and remarriage, motherhood to middle age. For most of those years the painting remained unprotected in the rustic wooden frame that held it when Antonio removed it from the wall. 

Odd how we live many lives, how we bury the relics of our past lives when we begin new adventures. When I remarried in Seattle, most of the mementos and the associated memories of my years in Mexico were pushed aside, boxed and shoved out of sight. For over twenty years, Antonio’s painting hung in a dark corner of a basement bedroom. I suppose I wanted a new beginning, a new life, so I pushed aside the intense memories of that young woman who lived in Mexico City. But like all memories, they needed air and surfaced of their own accord.

It was a late morning Sunday in early autumn.  With coffee in hand, my husband and I stood in the living room of our small West Seattle home.

“We need to get some real artwork,” Tom muttered.

“Tired of the prints from Italy?” I asked.

“Tired of prints in general.”

“We could put up some of your work.  We have a few pieces in the attic.”

“Too big. All wrong,” he said.

My husband, the artist, spends his life doing murals and room designs for others.  Our home is a classic example of the proverbial shoemaker’s barefoot children. His years of art school and fine art are boxed in the attic, packed away along with my life in Mexico. Both of us buried large parts of ourselves and our personal histories as we ended first marriages and the pain that patterned their failures. I hesitated before speaking.

“What about that painting downstairs?” I asked.

“From Mexico?”


“I’ve always liked that piece.  It doesn’t belong in the basement.”

“You’re kidding,” I said.

He looked at me with that expression of his.  The one of shallow patience.

“I thought you didn’t like it,” I said.  I thought you didn’t want the reminder of my past life, my past husband, staring you in the face each day was what I was really saying.

“The only thing I ever said was that it needs a decent frame,” he said.

“I thought that was just an excuse,” I said.


“Yeah, I thought you didn’t want Mexico on these walls.”

“I want good art,” he said. “That piece is good art.”

Later that day, I removed the framed print from above the piano and replaced it with the painting Antonio gifted me in Mexico some thirty years earlier. The canvas hung loose from the rough frame.

“It can’t stay there without a decent frame and some protective glass,” Tom said when he walked into the room. “The sunlight will ruin it.”

Now, Antonio’s painting hangs in a hardwood frame, behind museum quality glass on our dining room wall. A peasant woman in a long skirt, dark reboso and huaraches walks home at twilight. A woman like so many I knew at a distance and respected without reserve during my years in their city. The women whose children could never attend the English classes I was hired to teach, could never afford the schools of the privileged class.  These were the women who sold me their fruits and vegetables in open air markets, who prepared my comida corrida in the cafes of the working class, who sold cobs of corn from iron grills or tamales from large kettles on every street corner.

The railroad crossing signs stand stark against a cobalt evening sky. In burnt sienna and brown ochre, Domi walks through my middle class, middle American life, reminding me each day of all I have and all I cherish.