Monday, December 17, 2012

A Scrap of Pain

After far too many hours glued to television and computer screens trying to make sense of the insanity of the Newtown, CT shooting that took the lives of twenty innocent children - children attending school, children laughing and playing, children waiting for Santa Claus - my husband handed me a coat and told me that we were going for a walk.

Dark, windy, the air heavy with accumulated moisture threatening to let loose at any moment, we walked to the West Seattle junction. We stopped at our favorite used bookstore. List in hand, I searched for titles appropriate for my adult ESL learners surrounded by parents reading to young children, negotiating purchases, encouraging reading and setting limits at the same time. I thought of the children and their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary, the twenty seven dead who will not be reading any more books.

We made our way into the local art and frame shop amidst a cluster of caroling teeny-boppers, herded along by a teacher, girl scout leader, maybe Sunday school volunteer pulling a small amplifier like a piece of luggage. Girls on the brink of adolescence, some shy, others stage-ready, all sang their hearts out. And I saw the twenty children who will not be caroling this year. Or ever.

As we walked towards home in the dark drizzle something caught my eye in the light of a streetlamp. A scrap of paper stuck to the sidewalk. Garbage. I kept walking, two, three, four steps, but it pulled me back. Was it the way the light shined on the soaked paper? Was it the color green? Or was it the word Victims?

I went back and peeled the scrap from the wet pavement careful not to destroy it further. It was nothing more than the right lower corner of a small poster. I read:
com / GRVM1       

My husband came back and read over my shoulder.

"Can it be?" I asked.

Tom said nothing.

"When? Where? Who organized this?"

We searched the nearby power poles in hopes of finding the rest of the poster, but found nothing. I dropped the scrap into Tom's shopping bag. Another piece of horror. Another reminder. If it was what I thought it was, why didn't I know about it? And did I want to know?

These are the questions one ponders even a quarter of a century after the death of a loved one by a mass murderer. The pain does not go away. We simply learn to live with it. The parents, the siblings, the loved ones of the victims of the Newton massacre will live with this pain for as long as they exist. I cried for their pain and for my own.

"I'll google it," I told Tom. I told myself.

But I didn't. Not when we got home. Instead I made dinner. We watched a movie. I tossed and turned through the night.

The next morning, as Tom packed the van in a rush to reach the West Seattle Farmers' Market to sell Kentucky Bourbon Cakes and holiday cheer, I googled GRVM1. A Facebook link appeared. I clicked on it.
December 8, 2012
Green River Victims Memorial

That's all I read. I scrolled through the long list of comments but read nothing. Whatever it was, wherever it was, whoever had organized it, I had missed it. I turned off my laptop and hurried out to sell holiday cheer. I know I will do more research. I will learn about this event and the organizers behind it. And I will decide if it is something I want to be involved in, for myself and for the memory of my sister. For now I can cope with no more horror.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Accessing Your Voice: an interview

I had the pleasure of seating down for an interview with Norelle Done last month over a beer at the Celtic Swell in West Seattle. Norelle was so charming it felt more like a conversation with an old friend than a literary interview. To read the interview and check out at Norelle's website, please visit Seattle Wrote. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Ready to Take Dictation

Reading Jack Remick's The Deification, I stumbled on page 208 when I came to a chapter, the only chapter in the novel, with a title instead of a number. The title: Taking Dictation. It's a pivotal chapter. The protagonist, Eddie Iturbi, takes dictation from the spirit of Jack Kerouac.

Later that same day at writing practice I met a new writer who asked about my notebook, an old style steno pad with pale green pages and a spiral at the top. Did you ever take dictation, you know, like in an office? he asked. I laughed. I just like the size, I said. It fits in any handbag. The cardboard front and back let me write anywhere and the spiral doesn't slow the slide of my hand across the page.
It wasn't until later that the synchronicity of these two encounters hit me.

At timed writing practice, we set the timer and write. Jack Remick calls it riding the mythic wave when you write from a place so deep that you're taking dictation from the subconscious mind. When your internal editor is turned off and energy flows through your pen, ink onto page, in such a way that when the timer sounds and you read your words, you wonder where they came from. That's the power of the mythic wave.

I wonder if back when I decided to take my first writing course, when I attended an orientation and found myself face to face with Jack Remick, when I stopped by Staples for supplies and picked up my first steno pad was I already in early training to ride the mythic wave and take dictation from the gods?

I'm not there yet. My balance is off and I fall off the board. My eyes, nose, lungs fill with water and I choke with rage. My internal editor tells me I'm writing crap and my pages are filled with crossed out words. But I keep trying because a single ride on the mythic wave, a single session of dictation, a single experience of losing oneself in the words, is addictive. Like a drug, it pulls me back to the writing table again and again, steno pad in hand, ready to take dictation.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

life goes on

beached whale

tall ladder
big man
wet tennis shoes

foot slips
hand grasps air
floor hits hard

lungs empty
minutes lag
prone on linoleum

walked it off, he says

hours pass
nausea hits
vision blurs

ears ring
sweat puddles
race to trauma center

rush hour traffic
endless tests
morphine smile

fractured vertebra
fractured rib

beached whale
blessed percocet
life goes on

nightmare fears awaken me
broken bones and bourbon cakes
i dare not move
no creak of bed or shift of blanket

baker must rest
to heal fractured rib and vertebra
bourbon cakes must be baked
ingredients purchased and kitchen leased  

ingredients purchased and kitchen leased
bourbon cakes must be baked

to heal fractured rib and vertebra
baker must rest

no creak of bed or shift of blanket
i dare not move

broken bones and bourbon cakes
nightmare fears awaken me

winter break

winter break calls
with time at home to gather shards
from life on edge, from ladder falls
winter break calls

no painful fractures, no hospital wards
no cakes to bake, no holiday cards
winter break calls
with time at home to gather shards

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Ticking Clock

I chose a weekend my husband was off backpacking with his father. I suppose I should've enjoyed the neat, solitary space knowing that soon my tiny home would again be cluttered with camping gear, dirty clothes and excessive testosterone. But I didn't.

Instead I decided it was time to sort my closet. For years I've organized my clothes as fashion experts advise - pants, skirts, dresses, tops, jackets - each in neat groups and sorted by color left to right, light to dark. A bit obsessive, but at least I could find stuff in my tiny closet.

What I couldn't do was pull together a decent outfit in the time I allowed myself each morning, time usually cut short because I spent too much of it scribbling in a notebook as the clock ticked on, oblivious to my dilemma. Despite my obsessive organization, I still wasted several precious minutes trying to figure out what to put on as my carpool partner waited on a rainy dark street corner. Poor gal has waited far too many accumulated minutes in the past two years. When fall quarter began this year, I decided it was time to make a change.

I pulled each article of clothing from my closet and started putting together outfits on every flat surface in the house - bed, kitchen table, sofa, dining room table - trying to find just the right combination of pants and tops. A huge puzzle of clothes. I figured if I could make ten decent outfits I'd have it covered for two weeks. I'd donate whatever I hadn't worn for a year to charity and stuff everything else into a storage closet. Then at the end of a two-week period, I could reshuffle the outfits and restock my wardrobe.

I'm happy to report that I actually came up with twenty outfits, now all lined up like perfect little soldiers waiting to march off to work each morning. A month's worth of outfits. Pull one out, put it on, out the door I go. No more cold, wet carpool partner. Unless, of course, I keep writing, oblivious to the ticking clock.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


A day of glorious sun and gentle breeze, a breeze pregnant with thoughts of death. A short week of mountain hiking, Spirit Lake and Mt. St. Helens an arm’s reach away, death at my fingertips. Another few days of biking the San Juan Islands, empty roads, beach picnics and tired muscles talk to me of death.
The car heads home, my husband and I dirty, exhausted, ready for the comforts of warm shower and soft bed. But first we stop to visit my mother. We find her in her tiny bed, in her tiny room, in the tiny world of a dementia care facility we now call her home. It is 4:45. She opens her faded blue eyes. Is it fear I see there? A plea for help? Resignation?

“Do you want to get up, Mom?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says. It is the only word she speaks during our visit.

I find a caregiver and ask why my mother is in bed at 4:45 on a Thursday afternoon.

“She rest after lunch,” she tells me in accented English as she follows me to my mother’s room.

Is it a whine, a gasp, a moan that escapes Mom’s lips as the caregiver straightens her legs and pulls her to a sitting position? Mom clings to my thumb. Tight.

A death grip, I think.

If only, I think.

You’re wicked, I think.

I pry my thumb loose and step aside to allow the first caregiver, now joined by a second, to wrap a lifting strap around mother’s thin frame. Together they hoist her into her wheelchair. Dead weight.

As I wait, I check the hospice notebook kept at bedside. The hospice nurse visited the day before at 4:00 and found Mom in bed. She expressed no concern, did not question why my mother was still in bed so late in the afternoon.

Is this the new norm? I ask myself.

I remember the opposite end of life, my daughter as a young child. I remember how each time I adjusted to a new behavior pattern – eating, sleeping, tantrums – it changed. Sometimes the cycles of change were shorter, sometimes longer, not always the six months mentioned in parenting books. The only thing certain was that just as Tom and I got used to our little girl acting in a particular way, she changed. There was a new norm.

“I don’t think she’ll last the year,” Tom says as I wipe my tears on the way to our dusty car, still full of camping equipment, still crowned with bikes, still holding the magic of hilly island roads and majestic mountain trails. Still haunted by thoughts of death.

I do not believe in hell or heaven. Sitting up on a fluffy cloud drinking gin martinis – nope, don’t think so. Nor do I believe that my mother will meet up with my father and sister when she dies. Death would be so much easier if I could believe, but I cannot.

What is death? In my mother’s case, the body is slowly shutting down, the messages no longer passing from brain to spinal column to muscles. When the messages no longer make it to the heart, the heart will stop and life will end. The body, my mother’s body, will be nothing more than a shell of the vibrant, strong, beautiful woman she once was.

But that woman is already gone. What is left is already a shell with no memory, no recognition, no pleasure. My mother is living her own death but her body does not die. When it does, nothing will remain but the memories of her held in the hearts of her loved ones and that genetic piece of her carried forward by each of her eight living children and numerous grandchildren.

I am guilty of wishing my mother’s death. I carry that wish on mountain trails and along island roads. I carry it to writing practice, to movies and readings, to college classrooms. It is a death wish that I cannot release, that I will not release until my mother is dead. I wish for one strong stroke to stop the endless stream of insidious mini strokes that have, over the last ten years, stolen my mother’s words, memories, recognition, small motor skills, and finally large motor skills. Unlike watching my daughter’s growth, my mother’s new norms are not joyous celebrations of new skills acquired or stronger struggles for personal independence. Mom’s new norms are nothing more than the dreadful stages of a body moving at a snail’s pace towards an inevitable end. So if I am a sinner for wishing my mother’s death, I claim the title.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Betty Plays by Pamela Hobart Carter

“How would you like to guest blog?” Arleen asked. Give me an assignment and I’m there. Maybe I like assignments as much as I do because so much interests me that it helps to have external forces constrain my natural desire to go off in all directions at once. So here I am while Arleen meets her self-imposed deadline to complete a draft of the second novel in her trilogy before the next term begins.

Recently, I gave myself and three other playwrights an assignment. The four of us love the work of a particular actor friend who has a raft of physical issues that make conventional roles impossible. She can no longer march and stand and jump for hours on end as she did in Mother Courage only a few years ago. Wanting to see her on stage again pushed me to come up with our pending production and to produce for the first and last time in my life. When I described the idea to the others, they set aside some pressing tasks and started writing for this one. We each wrote Betty Campbell a short play through which she can sit. We dubbed our project, “The Betty Plays.”

I’ve written for Betty before. The first time, I didn’t know I was writing for Betty. Director Paul Mullin (another of “The Betty Plays” playwrights) cast her as the matriarch, “Joan,” in my play Rondo and I came under her spell. On our ride home from the Rondo reading, my husband said, “Everyone should be writing for Betty.” I took his words to heart.

Over the last couple of years Betty Campbell has become a muse, my “Joan”: I want to hear her deliver my scripts. I imagine her voice reading my speeches as I jot them. I hear the mixture of power and fragility. A couple of weeks ago I had the enormous pleasure of hearing her read through all of the scripts for “The Betty Plays.” I know Betty is a marvel, but she blew my socks off. She was funny, sharp mysterious, and credible.

Stylistically distinct, the four plays demonstrate Mrs. Bet’s versatility. One playwright set Betty in the old west as Mrs. Primgarten, grande dame of a mining town. She gets to preside from her parlor chair as she addresses their lawman. Betty is a psychiatrist on a mission to save a young man in my play. I don’t want to give too much away, but in another play, Betty perches on a rock on a sea-swept island. The fourth short puts Betty in the cockpit of a small plane under dire circumstances.
The assignment panned out. Betty will be on stage for three performances this fall.

“The Betty Plays” directed by Julie Beckman
4 World Premiere plays
presented by Theater Schmeater  
1500 Summit Avenue  Seattle, WA 98122
(206) 324-5801

The Shipwrecker by Scot Augustson, Clochettes d’Argent by Paul Mullin, The Prescient Dr. Primrose by Pamela Hobart Carter, Leo and Kat are Flying by Jim Lapan and Paul Klein and “Lethal Cotillion,” a short film by Scot Augustson

September 23, September 30, and October 7, 2012, 4 p.m.
Ticket Prices: $10 in advance. $12 at the door.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Death Penalty

It’s interesting the unexpected bits that readers pull from your work, the bits that hold meaning to some and are passed over by others. When I mentioned my opposition to the death penalty in my memoir, The Thirty-Ninth Victim, it was in passing, an explanation to my lack of objection to the plea bargain offered Gary Ridgway – life in prison without parole in exchange for a full confession.

The crux of the matter lies in one's beliefs about the death penalty. Since I do not believe in institutionalized killing, in 'an eye for an eye,' since I do not believe that we can justify taking another human life, except perhaps in self-defense or the defense of those we feel compelled to protect, I do not see any justification for killing Ridgway or anyone else on Death Row. 
 (The Thirty-Ninth Victim, p. 173)

There were some who were extremely supportive when they learned of the publication of my memoir of my family's journey before and after the Green River Killer murdered my sister, Maureen. But once they read the book and learned my position on the death penalty and on the inefficiency of the Green River Task Force, they vanished into silence.

Now, four years after publication, two new groups have found their way to my book and contacted me – those advocating the repeal of capital punishment in Washington State. (For more information, visit and

With advances in DNA technology, the identities of additional victims might be learned. Should science reveal the identity of victims that Ridgway did not confess to murdering and should evidence be brought to bear his guilt, he could be tried for these crimes and the death penalty would be back on the table.  

I thought the horror was behind me, but maybe it never will be. I was opposed to the death penalty before my sister was murdered in 1983. I am opposed to it now. I don’t know at what age I first learned about capital punishment, but I clearly recall sensing an inherent contradiction even though I was too young to understand or articulate my feelings. Instead, I turned to one of the many saying that my parents used as tools of parental instruction: Two wrongs don’t make a right. And I wondered how the death penalty could be legal if two wrongs never make something right.

As I got older, as I learned of the inequitable, biased, racist application of the death penalty in the United States, as I learned of its total failure as a deterrent to violent crime and as I studied the financial costs of the endless appeals and legal processes that precede any execution, my conviction that the death penalty is just plain wrong grew stronger.

Then my youngest sister was violently murdered at the age of nineteen. For twenty years her killer was at large. For twenty years I questioned my belief system. But when push came to shove, in the face of the painful loss of a sister, my opposition to capital punishment remained solid. Killing Ridgway would do nothing to appease my pain or bring back my sister. All it would do would be to keep him in the limelight of media attention and in the process add interest to his life of incarceration while at the same time costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses and assaulting the friends and families of the victims with ongoing, unending news coverage.

I cannot but wonder how Maureen would feel about it. Would she want the death penalty for her killer – a punishment of retaliation but not justice? I don’t think so. Maureen was young when she was killed, but her sense of right and wrong was formed at a very early age, just as mine was, and I don’t think her beliefs differed much from my own. No, I don’t believe Maureen would have supported the death penalty, even for her own killer. And neither do I.