Laurie's mandalas

Laurie’s mandalas

Sometimes life hands you rocks. Sometimes they’re pretty rocks. Sometimes they’re art pieces made by a kind soul so that their heft in the hand is downright healing.

That’s what Laurie Aboudara-Robertson sent me. She’s the women I met while visiting my friend Ursula at the Yountville Veterans Home in late March. (You can see my post about that here.) Laurie made a series of commemorative mandalas, as she calls them (because, really, they’re no longer mere rocks; they’ve been transformed) to honor the people killed March 9 at the veterans home. And the day I visited Ursula, who is the acting director of the veterans home, Laurie and her friend Harrell came to place the final rock—the littlest one for the baby who died in utereo when her mother was killed.

As soon as Laurie got to talking to us about this mandala project, I knew I wanted to ask her to do some healing stones for me, too. She’d done a series of them to honor those killed in Parkland, Florida, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. She sold them and sent the proceeds to the Parkland survivors’ fund. And she felt moved to do a similar tribute closer to her home in Napa.

So after I returned home to Sacramento, I found Laurie on Facebook, and we began a conversation about the mandalas. Could she make some for me, too? I’d be happy to buy them, including one of the Parkland commemoratives. Sure, she said, and set to work.

What I didn’t expect was my reaction when they arrived in the mail, three stones with serious heft and a smaller, oblong-ish one with a painted heart for the Parkland folks. I stood in my dining room and took each stone, one at a time, into my cupped palms, and I breathed deeply, closing my eyes.

To be honest, I’ve had trouble sleeping since the veterans home shootings, since the killing of Stephon Clark in Sacramento. This is nothing compared to what Ursula and her team or Stephon Clark’s loved ones are experiencing, but in a smaller way, horrific images have awakened me in the night, making it hard to find peaceful sleep. Maybe it’s because this random, hideous violence has struck close to my heart, deeply affecting a dear friend. Maybe it’s because I, too, am on the verge of taking up a sign and chanting, “Enough is enough.” No one should walk into schools or offices or back yards and shoot people. Of any age, size or color. Ever.

As my mother used to say to my sister and me when we were kids, “No hitting. Anyone. Ever.” We didn’t always comply then, but as far as I know neither of us has struck anyone since we’ve been grownups. My sister didn’t spank her kids, and neither did I when they were in my care, even though we used to tell them that Aunt Jan had “spanking privileges.” We wouldn’t have dreamed of it.

No hitting. No shooting.

I realize that I’ve swung deeply into the camp of advocating for serious gun control. As in saying to people, “Do you really NEED to own that gun/rifle/assault weapon?” I can’t imagine this country banning all forms of firearms; the gun lobby and the second amendment will see to that. But I—who have long disliked guns of all kinds, who was married to a responsible but enthusiastic gun owner who, at the end of his life, had enough weaponry to take out the small town he lived in, had he wanted to—am done with this. Clearly, I’m not alone.

And yes, I know people, love people, who own weapons and who are perfectly responsible gun owners. Some even have permits to carry concealed weapons. But really, people. Something’s got to change. Could it not start by giving up guns you’re not using, just collecting? Could you not release the most deadly ones into responsible hands that could dispose of them properly? Could this be more than a symbolic act, as in the case of people in Florida and Chicago and Baltimore, who walked into police stations and handed over their weapons?

“I could have sold this rifle, but no person needs this,” said one of them named Ben Dickmann in Broward County, Florida.

“I am member of probably the second-most vilified demographic in the country currently (if you didn’t know, I’m a conservative leaning, gun-owning, middle-aged, financially stable white male),” he wrote in a Facebook post. “Within this demographic I’m probably in the minority, but maybe more like me will stand up, because I’m sorry, until my demographic gets behind this, nothing will change.”

So I hold these mandalas in my hands now, and I offer what have become daily wishes/prayers/mantras to end this violence revved up by the emergence of so much bigotry and ignorance and hatred, especially in the last couple of years.

“We are better than this,” I tell my students in my Race and Gender in Media class before we pull out our journals to put our outrage on the page. “This should not even be a concern on a college campus, the possibility that we could be shot or killed. I’m deeply disturbed that I cannot protect you. I hate how vulnerable we are, sitting here in class or walking on this beautiful campus or in the park across the street or any place in our city.”

They nodded. Some of them had things to say. We listened. We wrote.

On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, I did a PowerPoint presentation about MLK in class and said, “Like so many others, I’m sickened by the knowledge that one of our former students was shot and killed by our city police in his grandmother’s back yard.”

And we got out our journals and wrote about that, too.

Today I’m bringing my mandalas made by Laurie’s loving hands to class. I will pass them around and let each student feel what those stones have to offer. Perhaps the healing that Laurie imbued in them will seep into the hands of my students, who have weathered injustices as people who are Latino or African American, Asian American or Puerto Rican, Korean, Chinese and more. Some are LGBTQ or have disabilities others can’t see. Everyone has faced discrimination or name calling, whether as children or more recently.

But we all agree: This has to stop. We’re starting by being kind to each other. By listening to each other’s stories. By sharing the rocky love of a stranger in the Napa Valley whose mandalas we will hold and appreciate. Then I’m playing this video, which makes me smile and gives me hope:

People all over the world
join hands
start a love train, love train

Love Train Paula Abdul Turnaround Arts

Paula Abdul and the Turnaround Arts kids doing “Love Train”

Sing it with us:

People all over the world
join hands
start a love train, love train


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Baby tree

Baby gingko 4-5-18

The Monday before Easter,
shrouded by the pain of so many others
who have suffered great loss,
I stand in the front yard as Paul,
an apostle of sorts, arrives for the weekly
blower treatment and lawn trim.

And when he is done beautifying,
he goes to the black plastic pot cradling
a slender stake taller than the living
stick it held up, takes it to the fresh hole
he’s dug in the middle of the front lawn,
and tenderly sets it in place just feet
from its predecessor, a 30-year-old
Modesto ash, planted by one I loved,
that lived and thrived and died,
reduced now to a pitcher’s mound
of shavings.

The waist-high stick in the ground will,
we hope, turn into a grand gingko one day,
with green fans posing as leaves that
chameleon into golden scallops come fall.
For now it has the blessing of Paul’s
good hands and my silent prayers
(along with fresh wood chips at its base)
to guide it skyward.

And ten days later as I step across
soft grass to check on the fledgling,
there, protruding from its stick self,
poke clusters of tiny green leaves,
little fans-to-be, nubbins of fingers
that will wobble and wave in the breeze
each new season for years and years
to come,


Posted in Poetry, Uncategorized | 5 Comments


I play you for my college students
whose parents might have boogied to your songs
in their teen years, but these kids,
Stevie, they don’t recognize the funky
sounds of your keyboard, their bodies
don’t automatically start to groove
when they hear the familiar opening riff
on the Clavinet, before you even start to sing.

But after a month with too much rancor
in the world, I decide that we need some
Wonder in our lives, cue up the video in class,
crank the volume and holler, “Everybody up!”
and, looking puzzled, my students stand to take in
the ageless man onstage, his hair in fine cornrows,
keyboard reflecting in his shades.

And when you begin to sing,
Very superstitious—writing’s on the wall,
my feet are already moving—
me, the awkward white girl in eighth grade,
long hair, braces, far from blossoming,
moved to dance in front of others
because of this song, the coolest music
I’ve ever heard.

And now the horns chime in, the chunky sax
and piercing trumpet:
When you believe in things that you don’t understand
Then you suffer,
and without knowing it,
I have had my first lesson in Buddhism.

And now, as the video plays, I see students’ hips
start to sway, torsos bend and twist, and someone says,
Who’s this guy again? And I shout, Stevie Wonder!
as you sing,
Very superstitious, wash your face and hands
Rid me of the problems, do all that you can…

You are a wonder, Stevie, always have been to me,
not because of your young piano prodigy self,
all of 11 when you were discovered by Motown,
persevering through blindness to become
a legendary singer/songwriter,

but because you got me dancing,
finally learning not to care who saw my clumsy self
moving without inhibitions, that geeky 13-year-old girl,
now an almost 60-year-old college professor grooving
in a classroom on a spring afternoon
with her students, all ages, shapes, sizes and colors,
all of us wearing big smiles,

dancing dancing dancing,
never wanting to stop


Stevie and Grover, “Sesame Street,” 1973




Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Solvitur Ambulando

e-old oak

Thanks to Margo Fowkes for republishing this post on her terrific site, Salt Water, which is dedicated to publishing work about grief and loss.

I drove to the Napa Valley over spring break to walk with a friend who has, it seems to me, the most difficult job I can imagine. I went for the day, though once there I wanted to sink into the grass and linger longer beneath a majestic quercus lobata, the California white oak, rooted in the soil of the largest veterans’ home in the country. It’s a huge park, this campus overseen by my friend Ursula Stuter, who has been the acting director of this place since last May. She looks out for about 850 veterans plus a roughly equal number of staff on 900 acres with two reservoirs. It has its own post office and baseball field, golf course and swimming pool and medical facility, this small town within the small town of Yountville.

It has, for 134 years, been a peaceful retirement community of men and women spending their last years in paradise.

Until less than a month ago when a gunman stormed into a going-away party, took three women hostages and killed them. One of the women was pregnant. Another was Ursula’s good friend who ran the program for veterans with PTSD. The gunman had been kicked out of the program because knives were found in his possession. He returned with a vengeance.

And when it was over, Ursula was one of the first people who had to walk into that abbatoir and deal with the aftermath.

I was going to take a group of writers from Sacramento to write with Ursula the day after the shooting. We’d planned it for months. The day of the shooting I canceled our write. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Ursula. I emailed her; she emailed back. “Do you want to write and read to me?” She did. I listened as she began to unfold the story over the phone.

I knew from the first time she read to me that I wanted to show up in person for her. She liked that idea. So during the week leading to Passover and Easter when we were both off from work, I drove to Yountville. I was pleased to see spring springing—the hills around Vacaville erupting with new grass, bright blue sky punctuated with fluffy clouds, the skeletons of grapevines silently preparing for the bounty to come.

“Bring your walking shoes,” Ursula had texted me, which I did. I found the house on campus she shares with her husband and children—two half-plexes, actually, newly linked with a passage—and was warmly welcomed by their “littles,” the two youngest, Edward and Bridget, as well as by her husband Anton. After Edward gave me the house tour, his mother and I went outside for the campus tour.

e-Veterans Home cemetery entranceWe moved slowly, both of us wearing bodies that do too much sitting at our jobs, climbing uphill to the old cemetery. I could see no evidence of the ferocious fires that climbed to the western hills above the property last fall; nor could I see any blackened earth across the valley where Mount Atlas rises into the sky. Two fires named Atlas and Tubbs sandwiched little Yountville, and California Department of Forestry firefighters came by land and by air to defend the veterans home.

After enduring that nightmare for almost two weeks, Ursula gathered the veterans who had been evacuated back under her wing and set about trying to calm the nerves of everyone on campus… including her own.

e-Veterans Home cemetery2This day, as we walked together, slowly, thoughtfully among those honored dead, what we know and forget became obvious: Life keeps going about living. There’s a Latin phrase about walking, too, I thought, about how it helps. And though I couldn’t summon it at the moment, we continued to walk beyond the symmetry of the cemetery, past row after row of white, rounded headstones, past the thigh-high new grass sprouting on rolling hills, the greenest green under trees beginning to leaf out again. Lupine and poppies, wild radish and mustard bobbed happily in the sun-sweetened breeze. We didn’t need jackets; in fact, we were sweating. We laughed about it: Wasn’t it just days ago we needed to bundle up?

e-poppies1Tragedy seemed far away as Ursula told stories about the founding of the veterans’ home, the wall of framed uniforms from each of the major conflicts in which veterans had served, as she showed me the small reservoir where the firefighting helicopters scooped up water and zoomed off over the hill to deposit it on the flames.

And then, without my knowing how we’d gotten there, we were standing at the back of the building where five people recently died.

e-Pathways memorial1We stopped to take in the floral tributes, including a huge red-flowered heart with a ribbon that said, “Our Jenn,” and I knew that was for Jennifer Gonzales Shushereba, the mother-to-be, and that the pink ribbon draping from the center that said, “Cecilia Rose,” must have been her baby.

“They didn’t know the sex of the child until the autopsy,” Ursula said. “That’s when she was named.”

I looked at Ursula, mother of four, who had her first baby in a Russian hospital because she and her Russian husband were living there then. That baby is about to graduate from college and hopes to become a doctor. I’ve known Ursula long enough to remember her pregnant with Edward and Bridget. Those kids in utero came to my writing classes. Now Ursula was calm, dry-eyed, though I knew that had not always been the case in recent days.

As we stood there, a man and woman came up to us and introduced themselves, two local Napa Valley-ites who had come to add to the tributes.

e-memorial rocks1

Laurie, who owns a climbing gym in Napa, had painted small flat rocks into lovely mandalas, one for each of the victims. Ursula and I peered at the rocks on the ground. Sure enough, there was a rock for Christine Loeber, the executive director of the Pathways program who was 48 when she was killed.

Another bore the name of Jen Golick, who was 42, the Pathways clinical director, and a third for Jenn Gonzales Shushereba.

Laurie and her friend Harrell had come this day to leave a fourth, smaller stone. “For the baby,” Laurie explained, as my eyes filled.

There were no tributes among the flowers and signs for Albert Wong, the killer, but I thought of him, too, as I stood there, trying to imagine that troubled, violent man. None of us mentioned him. I’m sure there’s more to his story that few know. There’s so much to other people’s stories we’ll never know.

Ursula and I thanked Laurie and Jim and bid them goodbye. And then we walked on.

e-Jan Ursula shadows

Two friends walking

It came to me then: solvitur ambulando. The Latin phrase, attributed to Diogenes, translates to, “It is solved by walking.”

I had no great things to offer my aching friend, but, as Mother Teresa said, I could do this small thing with great love: walk with her, listen to her talk, buy her a salad in town at the deli, walk back on campus and sit under that lovely quercus lobata to write. We pulled out our notebooks and wrote and wrote because it’s what we do.

e-ursula writes


And when we were written out, we read to each other, because this, too, is what we do. In the Amherst Writers & Artists method that I use and teach, we tell each other what we like, what stays with us, what is strong. I gave Ursula what was strong, what would stay with me about her good words, her powerful images.

I can’t share with you what Ursula wrote because we keep that private. But I can tell you that she wrote five short pieces to my one, which is not unusual for her, some of them sweet and funny. We both laughed when I, writing under the oak on a bed of fresh clover, got splatted with bird poop. “We’ll call that a small miracle,” I said, “because how tricky is it for one bird to hit someone sitting 30 feet below? A baptism of spring.”

And so it was—a baptism, this time of resurrection in the Christian tradition, of transfiguration from unexpected, horrific death. It is finally spring. We have weathered storms of fire and rain. We have suffered knowing that so many—some we know, some we don’t—have suffered, have been unfairly targeted, chased, killed. There seems no end to this loss, not to mention the deaths of loved ones through aging and illness. We watch our cities explode with protestors of all ages, shapes, sizes and colors. We raise our voices; we mourn our dead.

We keep walking. We risk hope. We risk love. Somehow we go on.
e-single poppy

When you meet someone deep in grief

Slip off your needs
and set them by the door.

Enter barefoot
this darkened chapel

hollowed by loss
hallowed by sorrow

its gray stone walls
and floor.

You, congregation
of one,

are here to listen
not to sing.

Kneel in the back pew.
Make no sound,

let the candles

—Patricia McKernon Runkle


Posted in Nonfiction, Uncategorized | 9 Comments


8928cr-ret RonGeorgann2017

Ron and Georgann Turner at home in Bremerton, WA

I often stop myself when I start to write about my BFF because… it’s complicated. Not our adoration of each other—that’s simple. We have been best friends ever since, way back in the last century (the 1980s!), we met when she was a returning student at Sac State and I was an adjunct professor in journalism. She liked coming to my classes to hear guest speakers, though she never took a class of mine. We got to talking, liked each other, and, when she went off to Wales to finish a bachelor’s degree in her 40s, she said something that I’ve never forgotten:

“If you write to me, I’ll be your best friend.”

I did—on the thinnest blue Aerograms, which were the cheapest way to send international (snail) mail in those days—and she did, and as we learned to decipher each other’s handwriting, we became penpals, writing sisters, close buddies.

I was hesitant at first to call her my “best” friend because, well, I already had one (lookin’ at you, Sue Lester!), the girl who grew up next door to me, whose mom was our Girl Scout leader (thanks, Mrs. Lester!). My sister Donna is clearly the best (never mind that she’s the “only”). And then there was my band buddy, Lisa Morgan, who certainly fell into the superlative category. Not to mention the college buddies: Gina, Curtis, et al. They (and others) are “bests,” too. (This grammar teacher is putting aside the notion that there’s only one who fits the superlative adjective.)

But Georgann (BFF GAT) decided that I was her BFF (JLH) almost as soon as she heard that term years after she moved back to California and remarried a lovely man (hi, Ron!) and adopted three kids in addition to the two she bore, and long before she learned that she had cancer. She had major surgery in 2009 to remove a portion of her intestine in 2009, but some cancer cells have remained in her pancreas.

That’s the complicated part of the story—watching someone you love cope with tremendous pain, who has fewer good days when she’s up and about and active than the days she’s in bed. And I’m only loving her from afar. Ron is her major caretaker at their home in Bremerton, Washington. (Best husband, Ron!)

Recently, a CAT scan revealed a different kind of cancer present in Georgann’s hip.  There is a specific treatment for this type of cancer, a drug called Zometa. However, Zometa has a side effect of weakening the jawbone.  If Georgann has any serious dental problems, like needing to extract a tooth or replace a bridge, there would be a high risk of necrosis in the jawbone, which would be very serious.

So before Georgann can start being treated with Zometa, she needs to get all her dental work done.  The strongly recommended dental procedure in her circumstance is extraction of all teeth and insertion of four implants, around which new permanent dentures would be placed.

The estimated cost of this procedure is $50,000, and her medical insurance will not cover it.  Her dental insurance limit is $1,000.

So I’ve launched a youcaring campaign to help Georgann and Ron begin to raise the funds for her dental work. If you can help with any amount, the Turners and I will be most grateful. They insist that all money raised should be considered loans, and that they will pay the donors back within one year.

Here’s the link, if you’d like to donate:

Thanks, dear friends and loved ones… all of you are best in my heart. My BFF GAT and I send you the biggest hugs for your kindness.


Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments


april's room REDO


was all
you left behind
on one bookshelf—
two tiny
words with
no place to

though, really,
there was more:

a handful of stray pills
that got away
and hid under
the bed, under
the rose rug
that belonged
to my grandmother,
and some that
snuck into crevices
between poets
on bookshelves

three large paper clips
four large binder clips
a tiny owl earring
with orange eyes
a camera lens cap
the rubber lid to your
traveling coffee mug

three hair bands
three plastic hangers
a pink round ball
of lip gloss
(mostly gone)
a plastic dispenser
of new floss

and 72 cents
in change

In your big blue
Ikea bag
I packed up
most everything
but the change
and the lip gloss
and threw in
my blender,
which I never
use, and two
cups you used
almost daily
for tea

they feel
like yours now

I wish you well
on your new life
as I sweep what
was your room

but I keep
circling back
to the bookshelf
like a fish in a bowl
to ponder
the mystery
of those two
left-behind words,
which, because you,
too, are a poet,
will stay with me:





for April, who lived at my house for 19 months, before setting out on her independent grownup life as a teacher

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

This year, the seven

Twin trees in fog-Kerik Kouklis

Twin trees in fog—Kerik Kouklis

The first I didn’t even see. I leave food for her several days a week. On the days I don’t, a former student of mine walks across the street from her apartment to the college and dishes out some wet food from a can, replenishes the dry food and refills the water dish under an old temporary building for the feral gray one we call Haroshea. She was born under that building, the place I taught on campus for twenty years. Though my department moved across campus, a custodian and I continued the daily feedings until recently. Now my former student and I share the honor.

The second and third sat on two bus benches down the street from the college. Both men had large plastic bags of what looked like recyclables. When I approached the first man and said, “Merry Christmas,” I noticed raw meat in his open bag. I wondered if it came from the restaurant behind him. When he saw the bill in my hand, he shot me a grin and a “thank you,” and I took a half dozen steps to the next bench. That man’s smile was even broader, and he was ready with a “God bless you.” It has taken me years to remember to say, “And to you, too,” which I did.

The fourth was a woman I saw on my way home, not a mile from my house, pulling a wire grocery cart behind her. I could see a sleeping bag puffing out the quilt-like squares of the cart. She was leaving McDonald’s with a large cup of something hot in her hand. I couldn’t pull over there, so I rounded the block and parked a half a block down from where she seemed to be heading. But she ducked into the sheltered doorway of a closed brick building. I found her there, hunched down, both hands around her cup. After I gave her the bill and wished her a merry Christmas, she struggled to her feet, tears in her eyes. I thought she might hug me, but she extended her hand and gave me her cold fingers. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you, thank you.” I smiled and said, “You’re welcome.” She was still thanking me as I walked away.

The fifth, sixth and seventh sat a block away on a curb between a gas station and a Mexican fast food joint. Each was bundled up in more than one overcoat against the gray Christmas Eve afternoon. One had two Chihuahuas on leashes. One appeared to have only one tooth in her upper gum. I handed each woman a bill, saying, “Merry Christmas,” as three mouths fell open and a multitude of blessings fell upon me, for which I remembered to thank them.

I have done this Christmas Eve practice for more than three decades, that first year with a small amount of money grudgingly given by the newspaper that was laying me off. Furious, I decided to give it to people who needed it more than I. I cashed the check and asked for the money in ten dollar bills. Ten dollars is enough to buy a hot meal or two, according to Dale Maharidge and Michael Wiiliamson, two journalist friends who had spent a great deal of time with people who find themselves homeless. That Christmas Eve Dale and Michael taught me where to find people living outside in the coldest time of the year.

Today I thought, not for the first time, that these are the angels among us. They are not the least of us, though they may be among the neediest. They are us, as the pastor in a church in my neighborhood reminded us not two hours earlier. And there are so many more of them out there.

At the end of a year filled with so much unkindness, this practice reminds me again that I can do no great things, as Mother Teresa said, just small things with great love. It’s a small thing, and these people, they are the great love returned.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Holly jolly


In my family, I like to tell people, my sister and I were singing harmony before we knew what melody was. That wasn’t strictly true, but I do know that having two parents who came from musical people and who sang barbershop harmony meant that my sister and I were assigned tenor and lead parts early on so Mom could practice her baritone and Dad could sit in as bass. We did this with classic barbershop tags, the ends of songs that lead—if you’re doing it right—to a ringing chord at the end. Each singer has to sing his or her own part, which requires serious concentration not to mirror the voice next to you. This led to some memorable tags like:

When it’s sleepy time down south

I have no idea what the rest of that song sounds like, but I can sing both the lead and tenor parts of that tag in my sleep.

roger & darlene1

My parents, Roger and Darlene (gussied up in Sweet Adelines fringe) Haag

My mother, who this year celebrated her 53rd year as a Sweet Adeline (the international association of women barbershoppers), has been quietly disappointed that neither my sister nor I followed her into one of the choruses she’s been in. She’s never said so directly, though there was a period when she strongly suggested that my niece Lauren, who was in the high school jazz choir, migrate over to barbershop. Lauren didn’t, and Donna and I have steadfastly remained audience members for Mom’s performances over the years. Since our father died in 2004, we figure it’s our job to applaud for all of us, and besides, we owe her for, among other things, all those elementary and high school band concerts she had to sit through.

I doubt that my mother—or most people for that matter—knows how much I sing: in the car, in the shower, around the house. I can still do a wicked harmony (a fifth up is my favorite) with a variety of recordings, though, as I get older and my breath is not as steady, I wobble a little more than I used to. (My mother, incidentally, continues to take voice lessons in her 86th year. Go, Ma!) I’m a closeted singer. I generally don’t sing in front of people, though the cats hear me plenty. Sometimes they stick around to listen.

And I do love Christmas carols, though I seem to have adopted the family trait that now makes me cry when I hear them, much less sing them. I can’t get through the first line of “Silent Night” without emotion bubbling up. I hear my father and mother. I remember my late Grandpa Haag crying as my aunt played “Ave Maria” on the organ at family gatherings. We young’uns thought that was sweet, if a little silly, but I can so relate to my grandfather now. I cry at tissue commercials on TV. James Taylor singing “You’ve Got a Friend” does me in. So does “Sunrise, Sunset.” I blame it on menopause.

So when my friend Holly Holt, who is both a yoga teacher and fine writer/writing facilitator, put out the word that her yoga teacher friend Michelle Marlahan was gathering together a group of volunteers to sing at some skilled nursing facilities 11 days before Christmas, I was intrigued. rIMG_7732Holly did gigs as a folk singer for a time and even put out her original songs on a CD, which I sing along with in the car. I do one-on-one yoga with Holly partly because she sings to me in her lovely voice as I lie on my mat at the end of the practice. I call her the Blonde Yoga Goddess with the Voice of an Angel. So yeah, to stand near Holly as she sings carols in something called the Holiday Hope Choir? I’m in, I emailed Michelle.

The problem is that teary thing. But after Michelle sent me a nice note of thanks, I decided to buck up and practice a bit. In the shower, in the car, around the house. If I sing the songs enough times, concentrate on breathing deeply from my diaphragm, think about the lyrics, I can get through them, I told myself. Heck, I sang a solo at my eighth grade graduation wearing a yellow polyester mini dress because my homeroom teacher asked me to. I was in no way a super singer—in fact, I was about to become the only girl drummer in the high school band—but because Mr. Rolicheck requested it, I practiced the snot out of “Bless the Beasts and the Children” and wobbled my way through it in front of a multi-purpose room full of parents and teachers and my peers. It was not my best performance of the song, but Mr. Rolicheck beamed like the headlights on my dad’s Chevy.

“Fine job, Miss Haag,” he said when I was done, and I flew on that praise all summer.

So every day for the past week I’ve taken to the shower (my mother taught me that we all sound better in the bathroom; all that tile makes for a nicely resonating room) and run through the classics: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Joy to the World,” “Jingle Bells,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” “Holly Jolly Christmas.” I even attempted “O, Holy Night” with its wicked high and low notes. My favorite Christmas songs are stupid hard for me to sing: “The Wexford Carol,” “Some Children See Him,” “Love Came Down at Christmas.” But I do those anyway.

Still, every time I started “Silent Night,” I felt the familiar catch in my throat and the hiccup that would work its way into a sob. I decided to tough it out and sing anyway, even though it sounded, well, awful, even in the tile shower. But I figured if it came up on the list of songs Michelle was going to provide, I could lip-synch or look down at the words so my tears weren’t obvious.


Even the morning of the carol singing, I gave it another try in the bathroom after warming up on “Joy to the World,” the Three Dog Night version. (It’s so much fun to sing at the top of your lungs, “joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea/joy to you and me.”) “We Three Kings” got me.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” I said aloud. “What is this already?”

Well, I know very well what it is. “Stille Nacht” really gets me. It’s hearing my father’s voice, and his father’s and his mother’s voices singing it in German. It’s my mother’s father playing it on his organ in their Santa Monica apartment. It’s standing on the steps of the Methodist church down the street with candles lit and flames wavering in the December cold listening to a small congregation descended from German immigrants sing all three verses in German.

It’s a wish for peace and light in the darkest time of the year. It’s the song sung by its composer who sang it in a church one Christmas, accompanying himself on guitar. It’s combatants who put down their arms on a Christmas Eve of World War I and, for a brief moment in 1914, stopped trying to kill each other. They ventured into no man’s land to mingle and exchange food and souvenirs. They played soccer with men they considered their enemies in the days before and the days after.

It’s my dead loved ones, my companion spirits, reaching out from wherever they are to tug at my heart, to say, “We’re here. We’ve never left. Sleep in heavenly peace.”


The Holiday Hope choir singing their hearts out.

So I went to two skilled nursing facilities and joined the unrehearsed choir of people like me who like to sing carols. One woman, Tara, brought Louie, her Great Dane, a great schmoozer who stole the show, but we didn’t mind. I stood next to the Blonde Yoga Goddess and listened to her harmonize her way through some Christmas songs before people in wheelchairs. (Our best number: “Jingle Bell Rock.” Note to self: Don’t attempt “Twelve Days of Christmas… too many verses makes for a ragged throat.) Each person in our audience must have his or her own memories, their own catches in their throats remembering past Christmases, their loved ones with whom they sang. And I actually got through “Silent Night” at the first place relatively dry-eyed by concentrating on my breath, supporting it with my diaphragm. I gave myself a mental pat on the back.

But at the second place, a facility where a college friend of mine had lived and recently died, something very sweet happened. We had assembled in a big living room area just off the front lobby. Louie immediately gravitated to one woman sitting on a sofa who reached out for his big, slobbery self.

r•Louie & Helene1-IMG_7767

Louie and Helene share some love as Louie’s person Tara (in green) looks on.

After our troop of 10 now semi-warmed up singers ran through about eight numbers, someone requested “Silent Night.” I realized that it was the sweet-faced woman on the sofa. A walker sat next to her with a sign that said, “Hi, my name is Helene. What’s your name?” Without prompting, all by herself, Helene began in German, “Stille nacht, helige nacht.”

There I went. But I smiled through my tears as Helene warbled through a song she must have learned as a girl. I don’t know if she was German, Austrian, Swiss—maybe Dutch—where she came from or what memories she has, but her quavery voice carried the song through to its last lines:

Schlafe in himmlischer ruh
Schlafe in himmlischer ruh

Sleep in heavenly peace, indeed, with all our companion spirits there in the room with us, swirling around our heads and hearts. They’re here, with us always, and they make themselves known at sweet times like this when the sounds of an old melody beckon them. No wonder we cry when they make an appearance.

And through my tears, I sang my gratitude: thankyouthankyouthankyou.


Carolers all!









Posted in Nonfiction, Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Enjoyin’ the ride with Annie and Antsy

7431 annie singsCR

Annie and Miss Robbin sing “Deck the Halls.”

Some days, if you’re lucky, are full of music. And my most recent Saturday sure was. I watched two people I adore sing at two different performances 45 miles apart. One packed an old opera house to the rafters, and the other was the first on a bill of young performers before another full house. Both received a lot of love in the form of applause and adulation, which, if you’re lucky, is what performing’s all about, right?

These two people I love have never met, but the smaller of the two knows the taller one’s music. Antsy McClain’s voice coming out of my iPad cheered 7-year-old Annie in a way-too-hot Chinese train station in the summer of 2016 as I accompanied Annie’s adoptive mama Nikki on the trip of a lifetime. Actually, all three of our lifetimes. That trip made Annie, who was born in China, and Nikki, who had worked there many years, a family, and it changed me, the observer/helper, forever, too.

Antsy, a singer/songwriter from Nashville, has been my friend for some years now. He’s got a lovely voice and writes songs for his band, the Trailer Park Troubadours, that range from very funny to downright sweet in a variety of musical genres.

3032 antsy soloCR

Antsy McClain at the Palms Playhouse (the historic opera house) in Winters, December 2017.

He’s a terrific storyteller and writer, too, who has a number of books of his good essays to his credit. (Bonus: I’m the lucky one who has gotten to edit his latest books, and I smile pretty much the whole time I’m doing so.) I brought some of his music with me to China, and it brightened some challenging days for a little girl… and a big one, too.

On that difficult day in the Changsha train station, as we waited and waited and waited for a delayed train that Nikki feared would never come, Annie got more hot and tired and hungry and, though she couldn’t say so, was just Fed Up with the Whole Damn Thing. And the only way she could express this was to wail. Loudly and for a long time. (For details, you can see my blog post,”Time is a Southbound Train,” under the heading “Bringing Annie Home” about our China trip.) This was unusual because Annie, we had already learned, is, most of the time, one of the most cheerful people you’ll ever meet.


Nikki tries to cool off Annie in the sweltering Changsha train station, June 2016.

Annie, who has cerebral palsy, cannot walk and at that point had limited speech in Mandarin (which Nikki, thankfully, speaks). She was strapped in her wheelchair, and, because we were new at this, it was a great production to get her into and out of that chair. We wheeled her to the coolest area (which was none too cool) we could find in that un-air conditioned train station where Nikki took Annie out of her chair and laid her on a thin pad on the floor.

Nikki went to search for a cold treat for Annie (thank you, McDonald’s, for the pseudo strawberry-topped “ice cream”), while I saw on the floor with this hollering child. In desperation, I pulled out my iPad, remembering how much Annie had liked listening to some of my music, and I called up an Antsy song. Within 30 seconds, her sobs quieted, and she relaxed on the floor. I sat next to her holding the iPad so, rolled on her side, she could see it, and by the time Nikki returned, Annie was chuckling.


Antsy sings to Annie, Changsha train station with Auntie Jan, June 2016.

This was perfect, since the song Antsy was singing (“When You’re Laughing,” one of his sweetest compositions) contains the lyrics (click here to see a video of Antsy singing this song):

The world’s a brighter place when you’re laughing
I love to see your face when you smile
A stranger’s just a friend waitin’ to happen
Inside us all there’s a wide-eyed child.

Well, there she was, right there on the floor, that wide-eyed child. And here she was now, a year and a half later, not nearly as skinny, taller, going to school, learning English, rocking a new, snazzy purple wheelchair and very cool pink glasses at her first music recital. Annie was first up on the little stage at the music studio where she goes weekly for music therapy with Miss Robbin at NewSongs Music Factory in Elk Grove. And sitting tall in her chair, the mic positioned in just the right place, Annie joined Miss Robbin in vocalizing “Deck the Halls.” Here’s Annie’s big finish (click here to see the brief video).

7434 annie stage exitCR

Ms. Annie exiting the stage after her performance (and her mama Nikki at right).

Nikki and her friends Matt and Paul sat in the second row, Annie’s grandparents were in the first row in front of the piano, and the place was packed with kids and family members, as well as the music teachers, for an afternoon of music. We all applauded like mad for each child, as if they were making their debuts at Carnegie Hall. Me, I got teary—not only watching Annie—but at seeing kids picking out simple melodies on the piano or the boy with ear protection playing the drum kit to “Brick House” or the young man who dedicated to his father a Vince Guaraldi medley of tunes from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” I sat behind a little girl waiting her turn who had her drumsticks in her hands, tips up, ready to go, remembering my own long-ago piano lessons and later percussion lessons that led to happy years in school bands.

But I had to leave before the end of the recital to collect Dick and head to Winters in Yolo County where Antsy and the Troubs had a show that evening at the Opera House. Troubs’ shows are all about, as Antsy sings, the quest in life to enjoy the ride. And he gave us an enjoyable ride with lots of good music and laughs. I got to help (wo)man the merch table before the show and at intermission, which I’ve done many times (I love talking to people about my friend’s music). For the second time that day I got to be part of an audience listening to music that made us all feel a bit lighter—as if we were on a “Field Trip,” perhaps, as Antsy sings. (Click here for a video of Antsy performing this song in Davis in 2015.)

7511 troubs and bob

The Trailer Park Troubadours at the Winters Opera House: (from left) sax player Bruce Wandmayer, Bob Armstrong (sitting in on lap steel and saw), lead singer guy Antsy McClain, drummer Terry Domingue, and bass player Todd McMasters.

One day I hope to introduce Annie and Antsy. Maybe he’ll have his guitar and sit beside her, strum a bit, and start to sing. Then perhaps she’ll grin—as Antsy sings, “sharin’ the same big grin/we’re kinfolk”—and open her mouth and warble her Annie notes.

And I will applaud and cheer for my two musician friends, both of whom played to packed houses on the same day, singing their hearts out.


Posted in Bringing Annie Home, Nonfiction, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Passing the stick

e-0756 makana surf couple

Tunnels Beach, with Mt. Makana in the background. (Photo by Dick Schmidt)

For nearly three weeks we have ensconced ourselves on one of our favorite tropical islands (Kauai), which is every bit as lovely as it sounds. I could have, and perhaps should have, written a blog post every day about something amazing, but I chose to use my days toodling around the island with Dick and my late evenings to sit with my laptop and work on a revision of a novel I wrote in pieces a few years ago. It’s been sitting in a first-draft form (resting, I tell people), waiting patiently for me to get back to it.

Now I have gotten back to it, and I’m pleased to say that I feel that it’s a better second draft. It’s at that point where I can have a few trusted folks read it and tell me what they think needs fixing. I have learned over many years that showing a long work to others before you’re ready for the feedback can utterly paralyze you. I have a bunch of talented, kind, thoughtful writer/editor people around me who will also be sure to tell me what they like and what’s working about this novel. And we need to know that, too. Because every creative person I know, including me, gets fixated on the what’s-not-working stuff. We have to be reminded about the stuff that’s actually pretty good.

Technically, I’ve spent more than evening laptop time working on this novel. Mornings and evenings for two weeks on the lovely north shore of Kauai I went for walks on the beach, often alone, on purpose. Feet on warm sand, in warm water, bending frequently to pick up interesting bits of shells and flotsam on the beach (I assembled quite the collection of trash plastic bits)—this allows my mind to wander and the fictional characters who feel like real people to me to show up and interact in my head. Sometimes they talk to me about what needs to be tweaked or added or deleted. (I love it when a character convinces me that I don’t need a bit of dialogue or a whole scene. Characters as editors—brilliant!)

In other words, it all counts as creative time, even when it looks as if you’re wandering absentmindedly on a beach. Which you are. And some of your friends on social media may have gotten a teensy bit irritated by one more picture of your feet in the sand or that same goddamned lovely mountain or sparkling sea. They go about living their everyday lives with their job and kids and daily grind in a colder place, and you faintly realize that they do not need to see your happy place one more time.

(You post a photo of a particularly nasty-looking sky, charcoal rain streaking vertically toward the horizon so they don’t get the idea that every day is perfect in paradise. You remind people that you spent a good 24 hours without power after a horrendous rainstorm closed a bridge and had you trapped in your hideaway. You had plenty of food and a charged-up laptop so you could work, but still…)

But the truth is… it is pretty perfect. Because you have stepped away from your everyday life this whole semester. You have earned the gift of a paid leave of absence, and you are using this time, by God, to Do Stuff You’ve Long Wanted to Do. Sleeping in. Reading a lot. Starting a publishing company with friends and publish an amazing memoir. Spending three weeks traveling (and working on your book) on Vancouver Island. Taking small trips. Forgetting about college students and advising their publications and grading. For six whole months.

It’s pretty darn sweet. And there’s not much of this precious time left. School begins again for you mid-January, and next week, after you return home, you’re gonna have to go back to Your World and start to dig in again. But not without telling a story or two about your travels.

(Enough second person; switching back to first person, something I tell my students not to do in their writing… I am flouting the rules as if I’d never learned ’em. Yeah, baby!)

So as we neared the end of our fortnight on the north shore, one of the things Dick wanted to do was to hike up a bit of the deeply eroded, often slippery, always rocky Kalalau Trail at the end of the road at Ke’e Beach. A quarter mile into the trail is an overlook of Ke’e, which, in the right light, can look postcard fantastic.

e-4205 ke'e lagoon overlookCR1

Ke’e Beach from the Kalalau Trail. (Photo by Dick Schmidt)

I should say here that in his younger life Dick Schmidt was an ace hiker, taking on vigorous, difficult Sierra Club hikes in Hawaii, often carrying a lead-lined camera bag to protect his equipment. He and his late wife, Mary Lou Mangold Schmidt, long ago hiked the first two miles of the Kalalau Trail to a beach with the musical name of Hanakapiai (hah-nah-kah-pee-i), where Dick got some memorable photos of clothing-optional young people emerging from the surf. (But officials quickly tell you that there are no legal nude beaches in Hawaii.) They did not hike the whole 11 miles to the remote Kalalau Valley, which requires permits and at least one overnight. It is a bugger of a trip, not for the faint-hearted or out of shape. Or us.

Older and wiser and having fallen more than a few times, Dick and I are both extremely careful about tricky footing. It had rained a lot in the two weeks we were on the north shore, which can make the footing on the Kalalau Trail precarious. But we decided to try it, taking along a hiking stick provided by our hosts.

e-4179 jlh kalalau trailCRh

Jan climbing the Kalalau Trail. (Photo by Dick Schmidt)

The trail was reasonably dry, except for a couple of places, and at one point, watching me slowly make my way up the trail between rocks and roots, a kind woman on her way down the trail handed me her walking stick. I used it to steady myself, and before long, we were (puff, puff) at the quarter-mile mark (there’s actually a sign there) with the wowie-zowie view of Ke’e Beach.

e-4235 walking stick1cr

The bamboo stick woman. (Photo by Dick Schmidt)

As we stood there photographing and marveling, a young couple carrying hefty backpacks clearly on their way back down the trail joined us. We chatted, and it turned out they’d hiked all 11 difficult miles in to the remote Kalalau Valley and spent three nights camping there (you need permits well in advance to do this). Dick and I were impressed, especially after they told us they’d hiked in as the weather worsened and remained quite stormy for their first night and day.

“People were hiking out in terrible conditions,” the woman told us. “We decided to stay put, and the weather got better.”

So there they were, taking in the same view we were, this hardy couple, the woman with support bandages around both of her knees, her hand firmly clamped around a nice bamboo pole she’d obviously used for support. People often pick up hiking sticks along the trail or pass them to other hikers. Mud streaked her legs and his; they’d earned a good, long soak in a hot tub. I hoped they were on their way to find one.

We exchanged our “aloha”s, and they left, and we made our way down the trail using our poles much more slowly—going down always offers more opportunities to slip and fall, it seems, than going up. And when we got to the bottom of the trail, we felt rather accomplished for a couple of older duffers. I took a photo of Dick under the Kalalau Trail sign, and we felt relieved that we’d gotten up and down this small distance unscathed.

As we turned to walk to the beach, I saw, leaning against a rock, two walking sticks. It was clearly a place where hikers left them behind for others to use. One, to my surprise, was the sturdy bamboo pole I was pretty sure was in the hand of the woman who’d talk to us at the overlook. I already had the stick given to me by another woman who thought I could use it (she was right), and now here was this other stick.

I should say that I love bamboo. We have friends on Maui who live on land surrounded by bamboo and bananas. They share the bananas with us when we visit, and I’ve long wanted to ask them to cut me a bamboo pole of good size, but I never have. There’s something about the feeling of bamboo in the hand that feels smooth and satisfying. Hula dancers sometimes use split bamboo sticks called pu’ili as they dance, hitting them together to make a nice sound.

I knew I needed this stick, the one that had taken this woman to Kalalau Valley and back. I didn’t need it—we were no longer hiking, and I had no idea how to get the bamboo home—but I knew, as soon as its smooth circumference met my palm, that there was something in this stick for me. The Hawaiians often talk about mana—the life energy that flows through everything, a divine power. And I felt it in this piece of bamboo that had traveled, for all I knew, the whole Kalalau Trail with this young woman with the two bandaged knees. Mana also means spiritual power and strength. This woman had mana, and here it was for me in a long bamboo pole.

“You’re taking that one?” Dick said.

“Yes,” I said. “I need this stick.”

It sounded funny, but Dick has known me a long time and has shipped many odd things home from Hawaii for me, the oddest of which was a partial cow skull and jawbone from Maui.

e-J6794 rds priority longboxCR

Dick with the shipping box for the bamboo stick. (Photo by Jan Haag)

We took the stick with us. And, great guy that he is (as well as the founder of Schmidty’s Shitty Shipping Service for close friends and family), Dick crafted a mailing tube out of two triangular post office mailers to send the bamboo home for me.

No, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, but this piece of Kauaiian bamboo will have a place of honor somewhere in my home and my life. It represents the spirit of this place, of a woman I spoke to briefly in an exchange that, in the moment, seemed like nothing. But it’s never nothing, these “chance” meetings.

Before Dick packed up the bamboo stick, I wrote on it in Sharpie:

e-6338 walking stick inscriptionCR

The bamboo stick. (Photo by Dick Schmidt)

Somehow (I don’t quite know how) this ties in with the creative work I’ve done here on a novel set in Sacramento in the 1950s and 1970s. How this fits together is a mystery, but then, so is pretty much this whole process of life. The world swirls around us, often is too much with us, and we get caught up in events that are not of our making halfway around the world. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be socially conscious people, but worrying and fussing about most things does not help us or the planet. I try to remember this, as it’s been attributed to Mother Teresa: “We can do no great things in the world, only small things with great love.”

A stranger left a piece of bamboo behind on a trail, and I picked it up and felt empowered. Small thing. Great love, indeed.




Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments