The Staff of Life

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After a harrowing journey over steep gravel roads, after morning meditation sessions and before soaking in natural hot springs, you devoured Tassajara bread for breakfast. The cookbook made its way to your kitchen, instructing you in the art of turning gloppy sponge into sweet wheat loaves. Mmm… scrumptious with butter, jam and dark roast coffee.

It’s been a long journey enriched by frequent meanderings and yeasty experiences. Learning that satisfaction lies in a perfect translucent stretch of the dough that proves the kneading is done. Bread has secrets. It takes time. Like a good friend, bread must be patiently tended

Stressed in Space

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I’m about to explode. Despite training in enhanced mindfulness techniques, there’s a tension in my thighs and my toes itch. I’m leaving suspended relaxation. From the ceiling viewing screen, I see we haven’t left the atmosphere.

Hibernating in self-contained pods, we hope to make it to Mars in a self-driving ship. Some billionaire’s idea. What a bad time for insomnia since success depends on no one eating for six months.

This is my sister’s idea of togetherness. She’s a long time yogi. I’m not. Though I’d like the company, I hope no one else wakes up. I need to relax.

The Luck of Three

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His father told him good things come in multiples of three. Then, he left his third son at the crossroads. Taking a contemplative path into mountains and mists, the youth finds an ox, a horse and a royal ring. Riding the horse, leading the ox and wearing the ring, he’s stopped by a bailiff. The man’s skin and bones poverty cries out for help. The youth hands the man the ox’s rope.

Giving the horse its head, he arrives at a castle where the glint of the ring summons the queen. Three well solved quests later, she makes him king.

Don’t You Believe It

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An elderly lady, squeezing tomatoes in a pre-pandemic way, pulls her mask down. “You’re almost out of the woods.”

Whatever does she mean? “I’m healthy.”

“Yes, my darling, but stifled.”

Your father, reading Lang’s red collection with a Grimm smile, would say, “Poppycock.”

Imagining him in the library, a hole in one stocking, propping his feet on a worn stool sets something tingly-strange a-move.

Dozing later, you dream of the tomato woman, who waves her wand and turns you into the fairy tale of your choice. In a surprise move, you choose Into the Woods. Four stories, one price, music included.

Magic Eight

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Magic was in the air the day Maureen’s father retired. A charmed life was how he told it. From that first rabbit he’d pulled out of a hat, he had an itch to travel. He took to the road, bringing his family along from one carnival to another.

Perhaps that’s why Maureen stayed anchored. “When will you settle?” Maureen lit a seven decade birthday candle.

“Oh, someday, maybe.” He pulled a quarter from behind his grandson’s ear and handed it to him.

At eighty, he moved into care, where he roamed the halls doing card tricks. He never grew old.

Happy Birthday

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We sing Happy Birthday,
A gay grid of celebrants, in a non-traditional party,
All five participating squares bathed in screen light.
Quick to smile, slow to mourn this unknown country.

We clap ourselves on the back, no clue where this is going
Or when we might return.
Time's cycles extinguish candles burning bright. Wax drips fluttering
Quite like a guttering flame: always shifting.

We might gather in person soon,
Seduced by the promise of a wild celebration.
But not today.
Quiet when it's over, worrying.

Waiting, our grand hopes scattered, eyeing the horizon,
Watching in darkness for an illusive dawn.

Ornery

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My ninety-year-old mother is getting stir crazy. She says to me:

  • I’m too old to be alive.

I say:

  • You’re too ornery for heaven and the devil knows you’d raise hell.

She laughs. She roars. She can’t stop.

  • My mother said the good die young, the rest are too ornery.

That’s my grandmother, who was herself pretty ornery and died at a ripe old eighty-seven. Ornerier than Mom.

Ornery, it’s a good word. A word for times like this when the world is upside down. Time to get stubborn. Find some beans, seeds and flour. Happy for a quinoa stash.

She Always Gets Her Man

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Z.Z. had a sixth sense. A magician, he bungled through many close curtain calls. On a rainy Seattle night, Interpol surrounded the stage where Z.Z. was performing. Once again, he disappeared.

The trickster took a cab to the train station. He caught an express to Canada. Amelia, fetching in black lace, bewitched him in the dining car. Upon arrival, they checked into a Vancouver motel.

Within days, she’d talked him out of his fingerprints, tax returns, and aliases. “Can’t be too careful with magicians,” she said running her finger along his spine. Ten minutes later, the Mounties got their man.

Finding the Time

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Kiki sent her novel to scads of agents. Despite what she considered electric prose, the rejections streamed in like greased lightning. The book was not marketable. More often than not, she thought she wasn’t talented.

Throwing herself into producing fluff for lifestyle e-zines, Kiki churned out travel stories and dating tips. She started getting published. Quitting her barista job, she used the time gained to write stories that more and more revealed the true Kiki. Something about the process gave her strength. Something about writing for herself made the stories sing. Something about hitting a different note led to success.

Writing in a Pandemic

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For the past month, a Tarot card that means reprieve has consistently found its way into my weekly story prompt. Sometimes it defines the question. Sometimes it’s the unknown quantity that might determine the outcome. Either way, reprieve is in the cards.

I find this comforting. Whether a reprieve from a broken Washington, a reprieve through self-knowledge or a reprieve via creative insight, all of it seems good. And I see this theme cropping up in places besides my Celtic Cross spreads. My writing group met on Zoom this week. We are normally very disciplined, sticking to the text of the pieces we are discussing, offering useful comments about improving our stories. This week, the sense of loss evoked in the writing provoked a different response that reverberated through the group.

I find myself wondering how much of it was the fictional stories we reviewed and how much of it was the proximity of loss all around us that bled into our comments. In e-mails after the group, one member revealed that a family member had died of the virus. Another commented that we may need to be prepared for more losses as this pandemic runs its course. And though it is unusual to discuss personal issues in our group, the underlying impetus for much writing is personal loss.

My husband tells a story that may be germane here. A friend of his from college, an English major, saw his first snow during his freshman year at an Eastern college. They were walking across campus, white flakes drifting into piles of white flakes. The African student said, “You know that snow means death.” Such a normal phenomenon across most of the United States is a literary symbol which becomes potent when it overcomes the barriers that we erect against it. Heated buildings, roaring fires, protective snow gear, all the ways that man overcomes nature. Until, as in Jack London’s To Build a Fire, nature overcomes man.

As a culture, we have celebrated rugged individualism. We’ve gone into the wilderness, positive that we would return, sure of being protected from the worst by our pluck, ingenuity, entrepreneurship and free market economy. But some things require a group and to be a group, we need to pull together. We need to listen to the advice of people who know more than we do. That means finding some other song to sing besides America First.

We do need America to come together, but that’s not enough. The virus is here. The means to fight it are spread around the world. Isolation is the first defense. But cooperation can’t be far behind or we risk freezing to death as a result of our own stubborn denial regarding the risks. And unlike a man freezing in the wild, we will take others with us if we can’t admit that we need each other.

There are two versions of To Build a Fire. In one version, the protagonist dies. In the other, he sustains frostbite and becomes a wiser person. We could use a little wisdom as we fight our battle with nature. Reprieve is in the cards, the question is how we go about making that happen and how much damage we sustain before the pandemic is over.