Archive for the ‘Writing and Editing’ Category

Because my Grandpa’s stories are oral history, it felt natural to write them as dialog, with long, descriptive settings. What has resulted is a play that’s meant to be read, rather than staged. I’m not sure this is the best format, but doing it this way was a wonderful way of capturing those conversations–and no matter what format the book eventually takes, it’ll be a great source to mine for dialog. Here’s a little snippet–see what you think:

SETTING: A kitchen. Carol stands at the stove stirring something.  Bodie and Marie kneel on the sofa in the living room, their elbows propped on the window sill behind the sofa, noses pressed to the glass. Pam puts plates on the table. Sally and Matt play on the floor with a giant Texaco truck and a set of blocks.

CAROL (impatiently):  Come away from that window.  I told you kids they won’t be here for over a week.

MARIE: But the drive only takes four days. I remember.

CAROL: They don’t do it like we do. They like to stop and eat, and see things on the way.  They haven’t even left home yet, and when they do it’ll be another two weeks before they get here. They’re going through the Black Hills and the Badlands and Yellowstone. They might even stop at the Grand Canyon.

BODIE: But they might skip all those things. They might just come straight here.

CAROL: No they won’t! Now come away from the window.

(The two girls slide reluctantly off the sofa and scuff across the living room. Marie surreptitiously kicks over the block tower Sally is making.  An  engine hums and both girls shoot back to the window.

CAROL: I’m not going to tell you again, they won’t be here until two weeks from Friday, at the earliest.  Now get away from that window.

Scene: The same, two weeks later—living room, kids playing, Carol sewing this time. This time Pam and Marie are at the window. An engine hums and gravel crunches, and a Galaxy 500 slides past the window.

PAM and MARIE (shouting): Grandma and Grandpa are here! Grandma and Grandpa are here!

BODIE (running from the bedroom): They’re here! Grandma and Grandpa are here!

SALLY and MATT (running from the hall): They’re here? Grandma and Grandpa? They’re here!

(All five children rush outside and stand, jigging impatiently, as the car door swing open and Bill and Gladys climb out. Gladys is dressed in a sleeveless, floral print cotton shift, bare legs, anklets, and flat shoes that tie. Bill wears a short-sleeved plaid cotton shirt and green duck pants. The children mob them, hugging them, burying their faces in Bill and Gladys’ stomachs and shoulders (depending on child height). Bill and Gladys reach out, hugging each child in turn, dispensing greetings and exclamations.

GLADYS:  Ooh, I’ve missed you so much. (hugging Pam) Pam, you’ve gotten so tall. Marie, look at you, that pretty blonde hair.(she reaches out and strokes Marie’s head)..and Bodie, you’re as tall as Marie…where’s Sally? Oh, here you are…just look at those curls…(she picks up Sally and squeezes her) Matt, you’re such a big boy…We bought you kids some presents on the trip…They’re in our suitcases. When we get in the house I’ll get them out for you.”

BILL: Hey, hey, if it isn’t Pam, and Bodie, and Marie…Sally…how’s my little potato bug? We stopped at Fort Bridger. I wish you could have seen it. I boughtcha a little something there. Matt, gotta handshake for Grandpa?

GLADYS: We went through the Black Hills and the scenery was just bee-yoo-ti-ful! I took a LOT of pictures.

(Milling and chattering, the children drag Bill and Gladys’ suitcases and boxes into the house and into the bedroom they will be using.)

VOICEOVER (BODIE): And eventually the suitcases opened and Grandma handed out her presents: “Here, Bodie, this is for you…” And she would hand me a furry hat with pompoms on the ties, a pair of pretty socks, a tiny doll in a long dress, apron, and sunbonnet.

Grandpa carried his presents in his pockets, or wrapped in tissue paper and tucked into bags printed with the names of magic places: Wall Drug; Cody, Wyoming; Yellowstone; Mount Rushmore. He dispensed his gifts in secret at odd moments, shuffling up to us with a bag in his hand: “Here, Bodie, I got a little something for ya.” And his trembling fingers fumbled the bag open, slid inside, and drew out a little pair of beaded moccasins, a penny stamped with a baseball player, a pen with a black bear inside it. When I tilted the pen one way the bear lumbered through the woods and into his cave at the other end of the pen case. When I tilted it the other way the bear walked backward to the forest where he started.

(Short cuts of Gladys opening suitcase and pulling tissue-wrapped packages from among the packed clothes, and of Bill pulling bags out of his pockets and giving them to children in doorways, in the hallway, at odd moments, of Gladys cooking, crafting, cleaning)

Once the furor of arrival died down the visits settled into a routine. Grandma stomped around complaining about her arthritis and making orange frosted coffee cake and painting ceramic dolls and refinishing furniture and talking to Momma. She had a wiry hairbrush, which my sisters told me she used to spank naughty girls. I watched my mouth around Grandma.

During the day Grandpa sat on the couch in his baggy green work pants, legs crossed at the knees, reading Zane Grey and Ellery Queen. Mornings and evenings he weeded in the garden, his thick leathery brown fingers easing the morning glory roots away from the carrots, radishes, and dahlias in our wilting, overgrown garden, sandy soil clinging to his knees.


SETTING: It is early evening. Bill kneels in the garden, digging weeds out carefully, tucking them into a gunny sack, then spooning dirt around the roots, trickling in water, adding a little fertilizer. Bodie kneels facing him. Beside her is a waving pile of leafy green weed tops.

BILL (looking at the pile of weed tops): Here, Bodie, let me get that. You have ta dig these things out from the bottom, see? If you leave anything—even a little piece like this (shows her a half-inch root segment)—it comes back just that much worse. Every single bit of root you leave laying around turns into a new plant. Bet you didn’t know that, huh?

BODIE: Huh uh…What’cha doin’ now?

BILL: I’m checkin’ around the roots here, just makin’ sure I’ve got all the weed roots out a the plant roots. If ya don’t, those weed roots’ll just strangle the plant right where it stands. Then, (digging carefully) when you’ve got the weed roots all out ya loosen up the dirt like this, see, an’ pour in a little fertilizer, an’ a little water, an’ then ya tamp the dirt down…just knuckle it in real easy, like this. Ya gotta be careful a the roots, see.

BODIE (watching): Can I help?

BILL: Why don’t’cha carry these weeds over an’ dump’em for Honey Dew and Joe? They eat’em, don’t they?

BODIE: Only if I hold’em in my hand. They’ll eat anything we hold in our hands. Watch this.

(She jumps up, jumps down the garden a row at a time, leans down, and pulls a big onion. Bill leans back on his heels and rests his hands on his thighs, trowel still held in one hand. Bodie hops down another few rows and pulls up a fistful of something else.

BILL: What’cha got there?

BODIE: Onions an’ horseradishes.

BILL: That horse ain’t gonna eat that.

BODIE: She will, too.

BILL: This I gotta see.

Bill stands and follows Bodie over to the fence, carrying the sack of weeds with him. Bodie leans down and slides between the strands of barbed wire, holding her onion and horseradishes to her chest.

BODIE: Here, Honey Dew. Here girl. (A white Welsh pony lifts her head, then trots up to Bodie.) Here you go, girl. (Bodie holds the onion out on the flat of her hand. Honey Dew takes a big bite, and then another, then chews and swallows, tears streaming from her eyes.)

BODIE: You like that, girl?  Here, try this. (She holds out a horseradish. Honey Dew bites into it, chews it up, and swallows it, tearing up even more fiercely. Bodie rub the pony’s nose, then her neck.) What a good girl! (Honey Dew drops her head onto Bodie’s shoulder and sighs.)

BILL (dumping the weeds over the fence): Well, I’ll be…. Here you go, girl. These gotta taste better’n onions and horseradishes.

BODIE: She won’t eat’em.

(Honey Dew walks over to the weeds, sniffs them, and then walks away. Bodie leans down and picks up a handful.)

BODIE: Here, Honey Dew, here girl.

(Honey Dew turns, ears up, and hurries back to Bodie.  Bodie holds the weeds out. Honey Dew lips them up and eats them with every evidence of enjoyment.)

BILL: (chuckling) Well I’ll be darned. (He watches Bodie pet the pony, then turns and looks over the yard at the children playing, then down across the river. Then he goes back to the row he has been weeding, sinks to his knees, groaning a bit, and goes back to weeding. After a while Bodie leaves, then comes back with a halter.

BILL (sitting up straight to watch her again): Whatcha doin?

BODIE: Getting’ Honey Dew. Marie wants to give her a bath and take her in the house again.

 (She clips the rope on Honey Dew’s halter and leads her out of the pasture, closing the gate behind her.

BILL: Why you wanna take’er in the house?

BODIE: I don’t. (She leads Honey Dew away)

Bill shakes his head, chuckles, and goes back to weeding.

PAM: (shouting) Marie, don’t bath’er. It’s too late. She catch cold.

MARIE: (shouting back) I can’t take’er in dirty. (She turns the hose on.)

PAM: Marie, don’t. She’ll get sick!

MARIE: No she won’t. It’s warm out.

PAM: But it’ll get cold before she’s dry.

MARIE: Grandpa wants to see.

(Bill weeds on, oblivious. Bodie comes back into the garden and drops to her knees by Bill.)

BILL: What’s all the shouting?

BODIE: Marie wants to wash Honey Dew and Pam won’t let’er.

BILL: Awful late to be washin’ a horse tonight, ain’t it?

BODIE: (reasonably) She can’t take’er inside dirty.

BILL: Why’d she want to do that, anyway?

BODIE: So you can see.

BILL:  She’d do that for me?

BODIE: Well sure. We all would.

BILL (looking at her, half-smiling): Huh. (He goes back to digging.)

BODIE: Why you goin’ so slow, Grandpa?

BILL: Cause I gotta be careful. I get in a hurry, I’ll hurt the roots.

BODIE: Daddy says we have to hurry up a lot.

BILL: Sometimes you go too fast you can get hurt.

BODIE: (sadly) Uh huh.  Do girls have roots?

BILL: (chuckling) I don’t know. I suppose they might.

BODIE: I love you, Grandpa.

BILL: Huh?

BODIE (shouting): I love you.

BILL (quietly): I love you, too.

BODIE: Can I give you a kiss?

BILL: (turning his head and tapping his cheek) Plant one right there.

Bodie leans forward and kisses his cheek gently, then jumps up and runs away. Bill looks after her, then shakes his head, smiles, and goes back to weeding as the sky darkens into night.

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It’s morning. It’s cold. It’s fall. And tonight I teach my first classes for the college term. As I reflect on my last post (the musical number), I find myself a bit embarrassed at what wicked pleasure I took in that song. Why did I find it so very funny?

It reminds me of my last year in college, when I had a similar reaction to a young man whose path regularly crossed mine. We were both readers for one of the College Writing teachers. We were both tutors in the Writing Center. We both contributed regularly to the creative writing outlets around campus. And every time I dealt with him I came away feeling like a porcupine that’s been petted the wrong way.

I wasn’t alone in this. One night after the writing center closed several of the tutors were sitting around (the young man was not one of our party) and we started talking about him. The question that perplexed us was why we all responded to him exactly the same way. We started sharing the awful things we had said to him. As the list grew I started writing them down. By the time we finished the list was very long indeed. We sat and looked at each other.

“Why do we do this?” someone asked. “We’re not mean people.”

“Yeah. It’s like I can’t help myself,” someone else said. “I see him and the awful stuff just slips out.”

“But it’s like he’s teflon–nothing seems to stick,” somebody else offered. “He’s just so convinced that he’s superior to everybody in the school that nothing dents him.”

And then we went on to talk about some of the awful–and foolish–things he had done. He was savage when marking freshman essays. Classes where we English majors critiqued each others’ papers with him became exercises in both humiliation and frustration. “Comments” might include questions like, “What is this crap?” from him. Comments made on his papers, no matter how thoughtful or well-intended, were dismissed as the maunderings of puerile minds. The worst of it was, he could not write. He spent so much time trying to be a great writer that he couldn’t be bother to be a clear or logical one.

A teacher heard us and offered an opinion. “He invites abuse,” she said. “When somebody sets himself up as superior, as above criticism or the necessity of kindness to others, people line up to prove that he’s not perfect.” She left. “Sometimes people do that because they’re really afraid they’re not as good as everybody else, but they can never, ever, admit it.”

We looked at each other. We looked at our list. “Wouldn’t it be awful if he actually turned out to be a great writer?” somebody finally asked. We looked at each other again. And then we stood up said our “good-nights,” and closed the Writing Center for the night. I took that awful list home with me so I could be sure he’d never find it.

I stuck it deep in a box. I thought about other people in my life who had provoked me to cruelty. I don’t know about the others who were there that night, but while I didn’t like this young man any better, and while he continued to behave in exactly the same fashion as he had, I never again succumbed to the need to take him down a few pegs. Also, he lost his job reading student papers, and we who took classes with him quickly learned to find other critique partners. We minimized the damage he might cause–and for me, at least, the need put him down faded to a weary tolerance. I learned to let his arrogance roll off me, rather than goad me to cruelty.

Why? I’m not certain. I know that the pleasure I took in the belittling, clever remarks fed a part of myself I didn’t much like. I also know that before that night in the Writing Center I was able to tell myself that it was just me, that he had other friends, that some people didn’t find him as grating as I did. After that night, I had to acknowledge that I was being a bully–and so were my friends. And we were good, normally kind, people.

Maybe that’s why, when I read Frank Bailey’s book, I saw something of myself in it. I, too, have felt the dirty pleasure of hurting someone who I have convinced myself deserves it. I, too, have looked in a mirror and not liked what I saw. There’s an old saying, that what we despise in others is what we despise in ourselves.

In a very real sense, Bailey’s book is about a culture of bullying–of an elected official who uses her position not to serve but to settle scores, to intimidate, and to feed a need for which no amount of adulation will ever be enough. It’s about a man who becomes part of that culture. It’s about how far people will go to not just get even, but to destroy the opposition.

It’s a book about my old college mate. It’s a book about me. How do I know? Because when I watched that musical video during the election, when Sarah Palin was riding high and spin was fast and furious, and I was terrified that someone who I saw as seriously wrong for elected office might actually achieve it, this video seemed like just what the doctor ordered. I watched it. I laughed. I showed it to my son. He laughed, too.

Time has passed. Sarah Palin has, if anything, become shriller than ever. But in her constant quest for what she sees as her due she has become largely irrelevant, except to the ever-shrinking Tea Party, and to her die-hard fans. She has chosen fame, reality TV, and fortune over the life of service she claimed she wanted. She has chosen a world in which spin and rigged polls are reality.

And I find myself looking at her another way. I still think she’s seriously unqualified. I still think we had a lucky escape. But when I watched the song last night that had amused me so very much two years ago I didn’t feel amused. I felt like a bully. I was participating in something that seemed uncomfortably like what I read about in Bailey’s book.

So here’s the question. Is Sarah Palin like my college mate? Does she invite abuse by demanding nothing short of adulation? Is her drive for worship compensation for a broken inner landscape? While she stood to possibly attain a position that would put the nation and possibly the world at risk there was, I believe, a need for correcting the spin, for balancing the orbit. But now that she has essentially removed herself from serious consideration for public office, perhaps it is time to say, “Go in peace,” smile indulgently at her tantrums, and keep a weather eye out for anything she might break. I think it is, for me. In the end, maybe the true question is not what Sarah Palin deserves, but who I choose to be. Karma is powerful. We all face it in the end. Sarah will face hers. But I don’t have to be the one to see that it happens–or even decide what her karmic reward will be. The world is full of people who “deserve” all kinds of things. And that doesn’t change for one second my own responsibility to choose who I will be.

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Pat and Maggie and my lax housekeeping habits have sparked some conversation both here and over on a listserv where I participate, about how the things people leave behind acquire a significance far out of proportion to intrinsic value. It reminded me of a column I wrote for Sage Woman magazine several years ago. And so, in the interest of things left behind, I’ve dug it out and reposted it here. Enjoy!

Finding the Green

I sit crosslegged on the floor, surrounded by half-empty orange boxes. Each carries a series of scribbled labels, some in my mother’s careful hand, some in my father’s impatient scrawl. I look at the labels and see my mother, lips slightly pursed, and my father, huge hand engulfing the Magic Marker, stooping a little because his back hurts too much to bend and he is just too big to do something as fiddly as writing easily.

The labels have little to do with the boxes’ contents. When I got my first apartment Mom sorted through the family Christmas ornaments, put the ones she wanted to keep into new boxes, and repacked the rest into the old age-ambered Sunkist boxes for me, carefully re-labelling  each box’s end, side, and top. She has packed the boxes several times since then, each time inscribing  a new label beside the old.

Mom believes any label—no matter how inaccurate—is better than none. Labels keep her world tidy. I am her polar opposite. If I want to know, really know, what’s in a box I sit down on the floor, pop the lid, and have a good rummage. It drives Mom crazy. That’s what I’m doing today—opening boxes, sorting, discarding, repacking. My goal is a room where I can set up my altar and leave it up. But to get there, I will actually have to get rid of good stuff.

I open another box and think of Mom and labels. Our relationship today is not easy, largely because we do not share a past. There is my past, in which my father molested two of my aunts, my oldest sister and quite probably me, and in which my mother probably knew, and did nothing. The strain of keeping the secrets pushed Mom, already unstable, over the edge into intermittent madness and violence. That is my past.

In Mom’s past Dad may have molested us, but she “just had no idea,” the craziness was “what we should be doing,” and she “had no choice.” The labels she has slapped on my life have as little to do with my past as the labels on these boxes have to do with their contents. Mom’s past is presentable. Mine makes sense. Neither of us feels like trading.

I pull out the boxes in the back of the closet. You know the kind—you pull the lid off as you’re packing the U-haul, shudder, retape, stick the box onto the truck, and forget it until the next time you’re packing the U-haul.

But my heart is set on making room for myself today in a house filled with yesterdays. I unearth mysterious objects: an old autograph album; a canteen; birthday cards; love letters. The saccharine sentiments belonged to the fifteen-year-old girl I was; they are mine no longer. I sigh, slip them almost reverently into the trash, and yank the tape off the last box.

Mom packed this box years ago when I had a new baby and my life broke. In spite of our battered past my parents were there to pack up the pieces and help me build a future for my son.  I toss the lid aside and stare at a small pitcher, a stuffed cow, a tiny diaper. I open the diaper, remember that even this tiny thing was too big for my child in the beginning, and feel the peace of those days when we moved through a haze of autumn sunshine and sleep deprivation, and bright leaves swirled outside while the fragrance of newborn baby filled the house.

I tuck the diaper back into the box and lift the stuffed cow my nephew bought me years ago. The gap in my life where he used to stand suddenly seems very cold and empty. I press the cow to my cheek, swallow, and return it to the box.

And then, under expired Disneyland passes and wrinkled Knott’s Berry Farm bags, I see green. I push the bags aside and there they are: Grandpa’s gardening clothes.

The spring I was fifteen Grandma and Grandpa came to live with us. Every morning and evening Grandpa worked in our garden, his leathery brown fingers easing the morning glory roots away from vegetables, sandy soil clinging to his green khaki knees. Grandpa liked company while he worked, but he didn’t want help. My impatient hands seized the morning glory’s leafy tops and snapped them off at the surface.

“Here, Bodie, let me get that,” he said quietly when he saw my pile of leafy weed tops. “Ya have to dig these things out from the bottom, see? If ya leave anything—even a little piece—it just comes back just that much worse. Every single bit a root ya leave laying around turns into a new plant. Betcha didn’t know that, huh?” He deftly separated strengthening roots from strangling roots. Then he worked in a little compost, drizzled a little water, spooned the dirt back around the roots, knuckled the soil gently and drizzled more water. “Ya gotta be gentle or ya bruise the roots,” he said. “Ya just trickle a little water in as ya go, see, so the air doesn’t get to’em.” I never saw him break a root.

I unfold the pants and touch the knees gently, right where Grandpa would have pressed them into the earth, then set them on my lap and shake out the plaid shirt. Grandpa wore it the summer he drove the grader and I drove the water truck, building ranch roads. All that hot summer we met and jounced past each other, miles away from anyone else.

We packed sandwiches and fruit and ate our lunches sitting on the sand beneath the water truck in dripping shade, sage-and-juniper-scented breeze cool against our damp skin, desert flowers papery and fragile around us. We ate sandwiches and drank deep from plastic water jugs and Grandpa told me stories, over and over. By summer’s end I knew them, letter perfect.

Sometimes we talked about religion. Grandpa was against it. “Oh, I believe in God,” he’d say. “I just don’t believe ya gotta go ta church ta know’im. Every time I go, there they are with their hands out. And all those rules…” he shook his head. “Seems to me if you just treat people decent…ya know?”

“I hear ya, Grandpa,” I said, and I did, not that it did me any good. My own religion would be considerably more complex for some time to come. Grandpa treated me like the plants in his garden—he gently loosened things up, eased the strangling restrictions, saw to it that I got what I needed to develop a better root system, and eventually, to bloom.

Grandpa did something else that summer: He made me a song. He sang it standing in the steaming road, under the truck, and in the pickup on the way home when work was done. “You are my pride and joy/You are my water truck,” he rumbled, his voice flat and soft. In the beginning he sang, “You are my pride and joy/you are my water boy,” but then he changed it.

I was not a boy; I was a girl. Grandpa, who understood the true nature of gardens, churches, and girls, recognized that. “Truck” rhymed better than “girl”, sort of, so “truck” it was. The song became a password between us, a key to the little oasis of peace, love, and safety he carved out for me that summer.

Sitting in my hallway, his shirt in my hands, I can see us there yet, a worn man in green khaki pants and plaid shirt, a tall girl in bib overalls, sunbleached hair pulled into tight French braids, eating sandwiches and drinking from old bleach jugs while the truck drips a gentle, cooling rain around us. We are smiling.

I lay the shirt aside and take up the undershirt, painted with a brilliant blue and red parrot. “I picked the shirt you painted for him,” Mom told me when she gave me the clothes. “He loved the things you painted.” This was true; at a time when everyone in my family, including me, saw my art as a cute trick, Grandpa saw more.

“Get in the car, Bodie, I’m gonna buy you some paints,” he said soon after he and Grandma arrived.

“You don’t have to, Grandpa,” I said, though I wanted paints more than anything. “Paints cost a lot.”

“I have enough,” Grandpa said. We drove to the hobby shop. Grandpa said, “Pick what you need.”

I chose carefully: the tiniest tubes of paint, the smallest bottle of linseed oil, the cheapest brushes, an 8 x 10 pad of canvas. “I think this is it, Grandpa,” I said.

“Ya wanna paint big pictures, don’t’cha?” He reached for the 24 x 36 canvases.

“Thanks, Grandpa,” I said, took my small pad out of the basket and bent to replace it.

“Hold onto that,” Grandpa said.

“But I don’t need two,” I protested.

“Ya want it, don’t’cha?”

“Yes, but—”

Grandpa headed for the paint aisle. “You’re gonna need more paint than that, aren’t’cha?” he said over his shoulder. “Them little tubes ain’t gonna cover much territory.”


“Here, get this one.” He handed me the professional-grade paint collection. The paint tubes seemed huge.

“But Grandpa, that costs—”

“Never mind that.”

I gave Grandpa my first painting. When I got the idea of painting shirts Mom said, “You better just paint on old ones.” And various family members donated shirts—old, limp, studded with tiny holes. Grandpa gave me two shirts—new ones. I painted a parrot on one, and a peacock on the other.

When Mom gave me Grandpa’s gardening clothes I thanked her, folded them carefully, put them back into the bag, and set them on my closet shelf.

A year later I learned that my parents had concealed a web of molestation and abuse involving most of my family. Learning our true history gave new and frightening nuances to events I had simply accepted as things that happened to me because I was “bad.” I started asking questions. Dad said I had a “weak grip on reality.”

It was true. People I loved and trusted had lied about the very basis of our life. I asked more questions. Mom and Dad contradicted themselves and each other, when they answered at all. “Truth” and “reality” became slippery concepts, moving points. Who were my parents? Who was I?

I clung to the memory of Grandpa. Surely Grandpa hadn’t lied? One day I realized that I could no longer remember his face. I searched frantically for the clothes, but they were gone.

And now, twelve years and three moves later, I hold them in my hands again.  I stand and walk down the hall to the living room, carrying them flat on my palms like vestments.

“Look, Patrick,” I say. I begin to cry.

“Are you okay, Mom?” he asks.

“Yes, honey, I’m fine.” I swallow, laugh, slap tears from my cheeks, and show him the clothes that were as much a part of Grandpa as his leathery, just-shaved cheeks, the smell of Copenhagen, and Digger O’Dell, his garden trowel.

I lay the clothes on the sofa and go back to finish the last box. The Knott’s Berry Farm bags lie in the bottom. I pick them up, already reaching for the trash bag. But there’s something inside. I upend the heavier bag. Four small gray stones spill into my hand. Each holds a painted animal. I cannot imagine myself buying these things—and yet I must have, because here they are. I rather like the duck and the quail, but I can’t even identify the other two animals. On looks like a mound of sticks, the other like a deer with balloons tied to its antlers. What right-thinking deer would do a thing like that?

I drop them into Patrick’s toy box and shake open the last bag. A small book falls out. I have just dropped Northwest Native American spirit rocks into my son’s toy box, spirit rocks I must have chosen on some long-ago day, for reasons I can neither remember nor understand.

I dig through toys, retrieve the stones, lay them out beside me, and look up their meanings: “Loon…solitude, singing; Moose…survival, headstrong (and festive, with those balloons); Porcupine…innocence; Quail…sacred spiral.”

I think of my broken family relationships and my largely solitary life as a writer, of the strength that allowed me to survive with my soul intact, of the innocence that was Grandpa’s gift to me, of the sacred path I have just begun to travel, and which requires that I examine my life, keep the precious, jettison the trash, and make room for the new. The stones are a message from myself, sent at a time when even I did not understand their meaning.

I gather them up in both hands, and place them carefully within the chest where I keep my sacred things. One day soon I will haul out the last bag of trash and donate the last box to Goodwill. I will cleanse and sanctify the room. I will position the chest, shake out the altar cloth, and dress the candles. But before I set them on the altar, I will open the chest, and I look again at the things I have placed within it: Grandpa’s gardening clothes, and painted stones, gifts from my past to my future.

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Once upon a time, in a kingdom not so very far from here, there lived a king. He lived in a beautiful castle. The castle was full of courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles, like many castles are. The castle was also surrounded by a moat–also part of your standard castle. But what made this castle, and kingdom, different was that while most moats are filled with water, and are dug down into the earth, this moat was dug down through the earth and deep into a layer of ice (a really not-so-thick layer of ice, it turned out when scientists from the castle got around to measuring it) that stretched not only under the castle, but under all the kingdom. And under the ice was a fathomless, dark, icy ocean.

You might think that building a castle on a layer of not-so-thick ice is a not-so-bright idea, and you might be right. The scientists in the castle agreed. “The ice under our kingdom can only sustain just so much weight,” they told each other in portentious voices. “The kingdom is growing too heavy. Unless we can reduce the weight of our kingdom the ice will surely break. No can know what will happen then.”

Since the scientists were speaking in carrying voices, it wasn’t long before the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles knew about the kingdom’s weight problem. And once they knew, of course, it was only seconds before word had spread to the farthest corners of the kingdom.

“We’ll just make the castle weigh less,” said the captains of industry. “Easy peasy. We’ll take all the grain out of the emergency food supply rooms. Then we’ll close the rooms down. No grain plus no peasants walking in the castle means a lighter castle! Problem solved.”

“But where will the grain go?” asked the king.

“We’ll buy it,” said the captains of industry. “Easy peasy. You can give us a great price, because after all we’ll be saving the kingdom by lightening the castle.”

“But then how will the people get grain to eat in hard times?”

“We’ll sell it to them. Easy peasy!” said the captains of industry.

“It doesn’t seem to me that taking the grain everybody in the kingdom has contributed, selling it to you at a great price, and then making the people buy it back in hard times is really fair, but let me think about it,” said the king.

Next came the courtiers.

“We have a better plan,” they said. “We’ll just force everyone who wasn’t born in our kingdom to leave. Then we won’t need so much grain for emergency supplies. We’ll sell what we need to the captains of industry, and they’ll sell it back to the peasants. Since so many people will have to leave the nobles can buy more land, which means they’ll need to find more peasants, and it’ll be good for everybody. We might even be able to permanently remove the grain storage areas in the castle!”

“Well,” said the king, “almost all of us came from other kingdoms ourselves. Besides, many of the people who have come here from other lands actually put more into the emergency supplies than they will ever use. Do we really want to exile all of the people who make it possible for us to have such great stuff?”

“Yes! Yes!” chanted the nobles. “Out them, out them, one and all. Then we’ll build a giant wall!”

“Let me think about it,” said the king.

The next group to come up with a plan was the priests.

“Destroy the grain,” they said. “The gods are punishing us because of our lack of faith. The peasants spend all their time in farming, and not enough in prayer. The gods will send grain for the faithful. And the others don’t deserve any.”

“Refresh my memory,” said the king. “Which god is it that’s in charge of grain production?”

“We can’t believe you asked that,” gasped the priests. “Clearly You Are Not Like Us. Anyone who is faithful knows who’s in charge of grain.” And they started a rumor that the king was a heretic, and should be forced to abdicate.

The admirals were the next with an idea. “Having the ice break is a good thing,” they said. “The castle and the grain stores and most of the peasants will slide into the fathomless depths. We’ll be fine. We have boats. And they congratulated each other on having had the foresight to become admirals in what had seemed to be a landlocked kingdom.

Last of all the to come up with an idea were the peasants. “What if we lightened the castle by removing the game room, and the some of the courtiers’ catamites and mistresses? And what if we took the gold and distributed it to the peasants, who could spend it for grain, and wood for home repair projects, and stock to improve their herds, and education for their children, and maybe even to buy a little extra grain to lay by for emergencies and old age? And then we could reduce the size of the treasury. This would spread the weight of the grain, help the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles, to be healthier since without the excess grain they would lose flesh, and everyone would be better off.” The king never got to hear their plan, because in order to reach the throne room they had to gain the approval of the biggest, fattest courtier of them all. When he heard the peasants’ plan he sneered, “I worked hard for the grain I have. Why should I have to give it to you for free? If you’d just work hard like I do you could have more grain, too.” And then he told them that their plan was childish, and unfeasible, and that it would never get the votes to pass, and that though the king might actually consider it the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles helping him rule would surely know better.

And so it was that the king, the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles, discussed the grave problem facing their kingdom, and at last, after hearing everyone out and carefully considering the needs of the whole kingdom, the king decided on a plan.

“Here is what we will do,” he said. “We will sell most of the grain stores to the captains of industry, and tear down the buildings that housed them. We will give some boards to the admirals so they build nicer boats. We will deport as many of the people who were not born here as we can. And then we will give a little bit of the remaining grain to the peasants, so that we lighten the weight of the castle for all of us. We’ll keep the game room, of course, but we’ll divide the national treasury among the captains of industry, so they may start more industries, and amass more wealth, and therefore hire more peasants, and in that way the wealth will Trickle Down.

“I object,” said the fattest courtier. “If we give any grain to the peasants we won’t have any emergency supplies at all. And besides, they might get the idea that they deserve to benefit from the grain they send to us. Next thing you know we’d have a nation of peasants depending on castle grain. No one would farm, and the grain god would forsake us utterly.”

“So what do you suggest?” asked the king.

“I suggest that remove both legs from all the peasants,” said the fattest courtier. “That’ll teach them to comment on their betters’ weight.”

“What?” asked the king. “Why should the peasants have to lose their legs? How will they farm without them? What would that solve?”

“Never mind,” said the courtier. “But I won’t vote for any plan that requires courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles to starve while we give free grain to layabout peasants. That’s just not right. I don’t think it’s too much to ask the peasants to sacrifice a little.”

The king and his courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles, talked long into the night, and at last, in the morning, they came out of the castle and told the peasants the king’s amended plan.

The grain stores would be divided among the captains of industry, the admirals, and the nobles, who would Hold Them In Trust until time of famine, at which time they would sell them back to the peasants at whatever price they chose. The admirals would build more boats to hold the peasants, or else they would use the grain and wood resources to improve their own boats, no one was really sure which, since the admirals got all huffy when the king tried to ask. The priests would devise a set of guidelines for determining who was contributing to the grain god’s happiness, and who was making him angry, and then they would work with the admirals in deporting all heretical peasants. And, as a special concession by the fattest courtier, peasants would only be required to sacrifice one arm and one leg, rather than both legs, so they might better fulfill their personal and civic responsibilities, and be a part of the Grain-Producing Base, and help Rebuild the National Stores of Grain, and have Self-Respect, and a Sense of Worth. And the fattest courtier stipulated that the arms and legs should be returned to the castle and turned into a new and interesting line of Pies, Casseroles, Roasts, Mixed Grills, Soups, and Garnishes, and thereby contribute New Industry, and Free Trade, and Realize Financial Efficiences in the Kitchen.

Some of the peasants asked why they had to sacrifice any limbs at all. The king repeated the fattest courtier’s line about Shared Sacrifice. Some spoke of storming the castle, and taking the grain by force, and knocking down the game room, breaking open the national treasury and sending the gold to peasants farm and wide, and saving the kingdom by evening out the weight on the ice sheet, but the priests counseled against it. “This is too big a problem for any of us to solve,” they said. “Let us hold a big prayer meeting, and as the gods to solve this problem for us.”

When some of the peasants persisted the priests reported them for Terrorist Leanings, and spoke of how the grain god was best served by submitting to the king’s laws, and then the priests reported the angry peasants to the fattest courtier as special cases who should have both legs removed, just in case.

And the next day the castle physicians went out unto all parts of the kingdom to enact the king’s plan for saving the kingdom, and in the end it worked, for a while. The ice sheet did not crack, for a while. The king and the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles, continued to live happily in the castle. They dined nightly on the new range of Food Products that the fattest courtier had devised. As a result of their missing limbs and the depleted grain stores many peasants either died of infection or starved to death, thus lightening the weight on the ice sheet.

And if some of the remaining peasants wished that things had turned out differently, they learned to take comfort in the words of their priests, who explained that trials are sent to test us, and that if they were faithful the grain god, whoever he might be, would surely bless them as he had blessed the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles.

And then one morning the sun rose, and shone down not on a beautiful castle on a sheet of ice, but on a great black hole in the ice, and around it lay a wasteland.

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