Running the River: Art & Literature in the Delta


This photo from 1900 shows European-Americans boarding rowboats on the banks of the San Joaquin River in California. Using archives records like maps and photographs, scientists are trying to revive the delta. Photo courtesy Bank of Stockton

Given its isolation from major Northern California urban centers, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has resisted development and remains suspended in time, but not for much longer. It’s a place of wonder—1.1 million square-miles of rivers, creeks, marshes, sloughs, levees, 500,000 acres of farmland, and it is the font of about 7.5 million acre-feet of water that’s distributed to cities and farms throughout California—it’s a playground for recreation, an agricultural hub and there are those who say, without blushing, it’s a paradise fraught with political maneuvering and environmental threats.

Few will say, however, that the largest river delta on the Pacific Ocean side of the Americas is a hotbed of literature and art. But those working to protect and restore the delta say that is wrong. Various groups, including writers, poets, artists, academics and community advocates are busy collecting the cultural artifacts that help mark the delta as a unique place in the world, one with a rich and diverse creative history.


Because I’m currently working on a novel set in the delta, I attended a discussion this week sponsored by the grassroots organization Restore the Delta about the past, present, and future of Delta Literature. Although literary luminaries from Jack London to Joan Didion have written about life in the delta, and their stories speak to significant topics in American history, scholars say the full range of narratives about this vital region awaits systematic collection, presentation and interpretation. There’s a lot of work to do.

During his overview of Delta Literature, Robert Benedetti, University of the Pacific professor emeritus of political science, commented that the “subtle beauty of the delta and a quiet appreciation by poets is needed,” if the delta’s rich cultural history and natural resources are to be saved from further neglect and degradation.

He also pointed to research into the literature of the delta by Gregg Camfield, professor of literature at the University of California, Merced. Canfield noted in his research that narratives shape human action and “we try to make sense of the past by telling its story; in the process, we shape our present and our future.” His survey of delta literature is online at:

Paula Sheil, founder and executive director of Tuleburg Press & THE WRITE PLACE in Stockton, as well as a poet and accomplished sailor, read “Out the Gate,” her poem captures the delta breeze blowing gently past farms and levees, picking up speed and spilling out to the bay, meeting the gush of ocean “like big dreams in a torrent.” She refers to the delta as the “anti-San Francisco,” suggesting the delta is the flip side of hip, slick and cool, a counter weight or cultural anchor to the excesses of its famous neighbor.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is a land of stunning open spaces fed by five major rivers. A maze of creeks and sloughs spreading finger-like through some of California’s most important habitat, especially for Chinook salmon and Greater Sandhill Cranes. It’s a bird watcher’s feast for the eyes and a fisherman’s delight. It’s also home to immigrants and dreamers who prefer the delta’s cloistered backwaters to brash and garish city life.


Photo Courtesy: Friends of the River

In reality, Sheil said, “It’s the people who make the delta.” Adding that she tells her students that through the delta they’re connected to world, meaning by following the waterway to the ocean they have access to every distant land. But, she said, “Stockton youth don’t have access to the water. Some children who live in Stockton have never seen the delta.”

The City of Stockton is located on the San Joaquin River on the eastern edge of the delta, but freeways, development, train tracks, barriers of all types prevent exploration. “We live on the San Joaquin River and there isn’t even a place to put a kayak in the water.” Sheil said.

Tama Brisbane, Stockton poet laureate and executive director of Stockton’s “With Our Words,” a national movement to combat illiteracy, isolation, alienation, and silence by bringing new voices from the margins to the core of society through literary and performing arts. She noted that young Stockton poets who’ve traveled to poetry and performance art festivals around the country often have trouble explaining where they come from, have a gap in their understanding of place, of the delta that makes the territory from which they come unique.

“Stockton is a city that doesn’t own itself,” Brisbane said. “Stockton needs to hustle to get its identity back.”

Stories matter. They make us who we are. Camfield said in his survey of delta literature that “human beings selectively interpret their lives by way of narrative arcs, by how these narratives shape human action. We try to make sense of the past by telling its story; in the process, we shape our present and our future.”

With a delta novel in progress, the discussion about the literary past and future of the region was creatively stimulating and encouraging. But, a newcomer to Stockton, I also saw how quickly the city is transforming, wiping out the connection to the past.

In downtown Stockton old buildings with ornate architectural details are rotting, while next door new structures of steel and glass are under construction. Preserving what’s beautiful and meaningful from the past, while nurturing a proud new generation, is a task delta artists, poets and writers are embracing. It’s an exciting time in the delta and I look forward to contributing to the effort with a few good words of my own.

About these photos – Before the panel discussion, I had time to wander in downtown Stockton for a few photo grabs. I’m planning some mosaic projects and was delighted to stumble on some interesting examples in the lobby of Stockton’s old Elk’s Lodge on Sutter Street.

How to Retire Kinda-Sorta Happy

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The curtain is about to drop on my 40-year journalism career and I’m practicing my curtsey before the standing ovation. Ever the nervous understudy, I’m searching for tips to make a graceful exit. A week away from my last day on the job, I need advice on how to cope with temporary insanity—while recovering from a broken right arm so I can get through the finale with aplomb.

Buried under a litter of books by my bedside, I fish out “How to Retire Happy” and leaf through it—again. There are sections on money, healthcare and real estate matters, practical advice. But, the author asks pre-retirees to consider this question first: “Am I really ready to retire?” There’s not a word about staying calm through the last day or the wisdom of continuously whispering the “Serenity Prayer” to stay balanced, which seems like a gyp since it’s a 12-Step book.

But, honestly, I haven’t seen a self-help guide yet that talks about how to respond to my adult son greeting me at the front door yesterday, a week before I quit my job, with news he has brought home a ginormous Doberman pinscher. The owner no longer wants it because of barking and biting issues. My son says the dog‘s a perfect companion for a confused pre-retiree like me, one prone to tears and toppling over at 3 a.m. and breaking her arm. I ask about the pony saddle.

With no help from the experts, no cunning strategies for handling the bump and grind of saying goodbye to one life, one identity, and hello to a new self, I’ll just put my boxes of dusty office ephemera, and the orchid from Christine, in my car, and pull out of the company garage one last time. The particulars of my last days on the job have me feeling like a frog stuffed in a blender after I hit “frappe.” In other words, I’m feeling fractured and churned. Let’s just say grace and peace have never been on my smoothie menu.

On Monday, my last Monday after 17 years as a staff writer, I will turn in 4 stories, work on a magazine feature, write a procedural memo on how to produce the magazine’s book section and respond to a dump load of emails. I told my boss I wanted to work up to the end, not shuffle papers or get the bum’s rush out the door. He took me at my word, unfortunately.

A wise friend who has shepherded many a creative type down the path to their next gig responds to my inquiry: “How do people actually retire. I mean gracefully walk out the door?” Her answer? Depends. Some keep the decision to themselves and just slip away. Some are gleeful and want to celebrate, others are sad to leave friends and work they love and can barely conceal their depression. I translate this to mean—no party, big party or sprinkle sesame seeds in my mouth and set me on fire. In my ambivalence, I haven’t decided what feels right.

I’ve been asked menu preferences for my goodbye luncheon, settling on a healthy combo of enchiladas and shrimp burritos, hold the salad. I’ve heard shrimp has fewer calories than steak so I’m good on that score. And, I’m told there will be cakes, one delectably made of sponge cake, lemon curd filing and frosted with whipped cream. The other cakes are currently of unknown delight, but I will be there to sample and smile, praying I don’t bust a seam in my worn-work slacks.

Cards and congratulatory emails, invitations to dinner and ice cream socials are pouring in. I’m being asked endlessly about what I’ll be doing in retirement, besides writing. Those who know me even slightly know I’m a writer, an occupation as fixed in me as gender. I explain about my novel’s narrative that won’t budge, my languishing short story collection and the poems that need spit polish. Oh, did I mention the essay collection?

Back at home this week, the phone has been ringing. Like sharks circling blood in the water off Stinson Beach, home improvement predators smell the meat and have been calling about free or nearly free ways to fix the roof, fences, outdoor sprinkler system, air conditioning, attic insulation and clogged drains. I ask about a severe yard clean up and, with smiling telephone voice, they tell me they just happen to have a discount offer on that, too.

A writer friend helpfully recalls meeting the author and anthropologist Carlos Castañeda years ago. She said he gave her several pieces of advice, including if she wanted her life to keep opening to wider horizons, she had to approach the world with love, instead of fear. Castañeda has also been credited with this advice: Before you embark on any path ask the question: Does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, and you will know if it’s true, then you must choose another path. The trouble is nobody asks the question, he said.

I’m reading literary journalist Janet Malcolm’s essay collection, “Forty-one False Starts,” while contemplating my last days before retirement. I’m pretty sure there’s some pointy-headed guy out there in a tweed jacket with elbow patches and dandruff on the shoulders who would recommend I approach the final day with deep breathing, hydration and Metamucil to get through the worst of it. Makes sense, but lacks a certain Zen glow.

In Malcolm’s title essay “Forty-one False Starts,” she writes in crots—long and short bursts—to create a mosaic of her interview subject—American painter, printmaker and stage designer David Salle. At the end of the article, Salle remarks, “Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever thought that your real life hasn’t begun yet?”

I can’t speak for Malcolm, but my answer is: Yes. My new life is supposed to begin very, very soon. It’s crunch time, the shift from old to new is on. I’m looking forward to creating a happy retirement in years to come. I just don’t know exactly how at the moment. And, to answer the first question: Yes. I’m ready to retire, to open myself with love, instead of fear, and follow my heart path, to let my real life truly begin. I don’t see any other way to survive.

I was told there would be cake. No one mentioned gifts and flowers, wine and love. If retirement is anything like the launch party, it’s going to be fun! Here are some snaps from the party.

Photos by Dave Kranz, Manager Communications/News, California Farm Bureau Federation.

Going Wild in the Wilderness

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”
― John Muir

View all my reviews

Beautifully written — lyrical, forthright, introspective — Wild is a must read for any beginner thinking about a wilderness adventure. It’s a vivid illustration of what not to do: zero physical preparation, pack too heavy, boots too small, wrong equipment, scant outdoor skills. It also highlights how forgiving the gods can be with the innocent.

Cheryl Strayed on the PCT

Completing such an arduous hike undoubtedly boosted the author’s self-esteem and helped her find a good path when she finished, something like a spirit quest undertaken by Native American youth, but the resolution of personal losses and traumas as she transitioned from adolescence — death of a parent, divorce, drug use, abortion, domestic violence — aren’t so easily resolved by a long walk. Those tasks take a lifetime.

And, having hiked the John Muir Trail in 1971 before the Pacific Crest Trail was completed — the portion the author skipped because of snow — and having lived in the wilderness at various times, I’ve come to know people with real survival skills and a deep appreciation of majesty and mystery to be found in America’s most remote and untouched areas. This unique, first-hand knowledge acquired over years of living in nature, along with respect for wildlife and the environment, seems missing in Wild. The memoir covers a harrowing trek to resolve inner anxiety, not a hike to the “heart of the world.”  

The fate of Christopher McCandless in Alaska, as described in Jon Krakauer’s biography on his life, Into the Wild, underscores that death lies in wait in the wilderness for those unprepared or who take venturing there lightly.  The TV documentary “Grizzly Man,” outlines the arrogant efforts and violent death of Timothy Treadwell in the Alaskan wilderness trying to become one with grizzly bears. Fortunately for us, Cheryl Strayed made it and we can look forward to the pleasure of reading her future work. 

The hike with the author along 1,000 miles of the PCT was mostly engaging, but there were tedious sections of the journey (much like a long hike) that I skipped over in the book. I’m thankful her foot sores didn’t result in infection that required an emergency rescue. I regret that she chose to sleep beside a stagnant pond and became covered with frogs — not because she awoke in the night with the amphibians crawling over her — but because the watering hole was essential to nocturnal wildlife that depended on the water source and her presence likely disrupted access. Also amphibian populations in the Sierra, and throughout the world are declining, which makes leaving their habitat as undisturbed as possible very important.

I question Strayed’s recollection of some wildlife observations — finding rattlesnakes on the trail on intensely hot days, for example. Reptiles don’t have the ability to regulate their own body temperature and usually withdraw during the hottest hours of the day, becoming more active at dusk and dawn to hunt. It strikes me as highly unusual to find snakes in the middle of a trail at high noon in the summer.

Although, I have seen rattlesnakes mating in a shady spot on a trail along the Yuba River in late morning, their bodies entwined and lifted together about three feet off the ground. Amazing to happen upon — but it was spring and mating season.

Author Cheryl Strayed

With about 3,400 Amazon reviews, more than half of them glowing, Wild doesn’t need a critique from me to be a literary success. It is a good book, engagingly and honestly written and has justly attracted the attention of the media, including Oprah, who said she relaunched her book club on the strength of the book’s appeal, as well as Hollywood. 

However, a negative response from the other half of readers who had issues with the memoir puts a finger on what bothered me about the book. Here’s an example:

I have read “Wild” and yes, it is good writing, as writing goes. But it is a serious danger to any who would ever attempt to emulate what Ms. Strayed attempted. In fact, I strongly suggest that her book has opened a Pandora’s Box of foolish and dangerous (dis)regard for wilderness backpacking.

“I am among that small group of folks who do not celebrate her best-selling book. I think it is a dangerous book that gives a sense of permission to people who have no business being on the Pacific Crest Trail no matter how expensive their equipment or determined their attitudes.

“In the fifty-plus years I have been backpacking, in the past two summers that I have been on the PCT, I have never encountered such a large number of individuals who were a hair’s brea(d)th away from disaster. I blame that on “Wild.”

The negative reviews also include observations about the author missing the point of venturing into the wilderness — to honor nature, not self, which John Muir alludes to in his writing.

Now a forthcoming movie, starring Reese Witherspoon, Wild will continue to engage readers and audiences and will underscore the value of our nation’s wilderness areas. I just hope it doesn’t encourage folks to set off with a pocket knife and a hank of rope in an attempt to conquer the Wild and find themselves. They may find more than a sweaty walk in a beautiful setting.

I was talking with a friend the other day, a high Sierra fly fisherman. He said before Wild was published in 2012 and became a bestseller, about 250 people a year signed the trail registers where he hikes and fishes along the PCT. Last summer more than 2,500 people registered.

A 1998 study of fatalities and in juries in California’s wilderness areas by the National Institutes of Health found 78 fatalities during a three-year study period in the 90s. Researchers said statistics for wilderness injuries — broken bones, sprains, lacerations and infections — were incomplete because there’s no systematic data collection.

After the movie based on Wild comes out next summer, I wonder if the numbers of injuries and deaths will skyrocket? If so, preparation and respect will help hikers avoid the need to pull their sorry behinds out of the hills, which is costly and dangerous. I hope nobody gets seriously hurt or killed out there because of false bravado gained from a quick read of Wild or a couple of hours at the movies with Reese.

I’m taking in the view from a summit
on the John Muir Trail in 1971

I recommend Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, a thought-provoking memoir of personal growth and redemption, but caution against setting off alone in the wilderness without adequate knowledge and preparation. Not everyone who foolishly does so makes it back uninjured or alive.

Stay safe out there, see you in the garden. 

Why Memoir Matters: Gloria Parker’s Story

About a year ago, I got an email from a writer who’d seen my offer of editorial services online. She was beside herself with frustration and disappointment. The memoir she’d been working on for years just wasn’t right—she could no longer see what was needed, what was wrong. She asked if I’d read it and provide a critique and I agreed, in part because I’ve been there myself with a manuscript.

Author Gloria Parker

And, because I believe storytelling is an act of courage, an outright call for people to stop and listen, understand and relate. I’m committed to this effort. I ended up editing Gloria’s manuscript, falling in love with her honesty and writer’s voice and later contributing the foreword to her first book – published at the age of 83. Today, I consider her a friend.

Her memoir A Seat at the Table calls us to pull up a chair and share her experience of growing up poor and Black in the Jim Crow South. The story is not new, we know the historical facts – from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Gone with the Wind to The Help – but we don’t always know the actual people, the unique spirits shaped by the experience, the families that survived to tell the tale.

Parker brings her writer’s voice and poet’s music to her story of America, rendering it with grace and integrity. The granddaughter of a slave, her story is intended first as a gift linking her grandchildren and great grandchildren to their heritage. But, also a connection to what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.” Her story is our story, if only we will listen.

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In the introduction to A Seat at the Table, Gloria says, “Many times I thought of giving up the project all together, but I felt compelled to continue. A few times, I put it on hold, but soon found myself going back to the computer to research another lead. There was a driving force within, steering me to task completion.”
Regardless of race, life’s journey is filled with hardships and difficulties, Gloria says, “add racism to the mix, and the journey can become unendurable. Although physical scars left from racial attacks can eventually disappear, psychological scars remain a lifetime.”

For me, editing A Seat at the Table was like being present at a birth, watching a life emerge on the page and being stunned by the mysteries and promise it holds – squalling and hot with energy and muscle, ready to grow. Writing can be tough, but with help from others, it can be easier, or at least less lonely. With love and patience, frustration can be soothed and something as satisfying as a story can emerge.

Dan Siegel says in Parenting From the Inside Out that “storytelling is fundamental to all human cultures, and our shared stories create a connection to others that builds a sense of belonging.” Receiving a story – an authentic, human story – is as satisfying as offering one. And storytelling invites the reader or listener to respond with his or her own story. Storytelling is a life-giving exchange and Gloria’s memoir offers this gift. More than that, her story begs for yours.
Candyce Ossefort-Russell, a psychotherapist and a writer in Austin, Texas, says the “nitty gritty particulars of life, shared in connection, clothe stories in skin and bone, heart and soul. Whether through talking or reading memoir, when hearts pulse with the connection of story, they begin to heal.” For those committed enough and brave enough to follow Gloria Parker’s path, Ossefort-Russell offers this advice:

Know that your story is a gift to others – it invites them to share their stories.

  • Listening to stories connects you to others.
  • If you want to get to know someone, ask them a question whose answer is a story.
  • Keeping a journal is a way to explore and remember your stories.
  • Dreams are stories. Writing them down can be fascinating.
  • Publishing a blog is an easy way to put your stories into the world.
  • A writing group can be a great place to share your stories in an intimate setting.
And, when your story is written, find a sensitive and supportive editor. During the odyssey of researching, writing and publishing, A Seat at the Table, Gloria said she asked herself why completing the project was so important. An introspective moment made the answer clear.

“Blithely ignoring autumn’s warnings, I suddenly found myself in the midst of life’s winter,” she said. “This knowledge did not cause fear and trepidation, but reminded me of the adage: ‘It’s time to put your house in order’. I found that a calm acceptance of life’s end put everything else into perspective—expunging fear. This unexpected freedom permitted me to finally talk about an incident I did not want to take with me to the grave. Writing this book afforded me an opportunity to accomplish this.”
Gloria Parker

Me and Gloria at her Sacramento book launch party.

Moment of Truth in the Garden

It’s time to tell you the truth, not that I haven’t been honest all along. It’s that some things haven’t been fully talked about — subjects have been changed, details omitted, opportunities to step away have been taken. People have stopped asking me: “So, how’s the book selling.” My usual answer is “OK. You know how it is with first books. It takes time to build audience.” My exit lines.
A friend on Facebook said tonight a royalty check had come from her publisher, just in time, as usual. The truth is I’m the publisher of my book, Adrift in the Sound, which came out about a year and a half ago in e-reader and print formats. My last royalty check from Amazon was for $11.
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Adrift in the Sound, which I worked on for 5 years, is now ranked about 850 out of Amazon’s 7 million or so books, not an awful ranking this long after publication, but it’s nothing to brag about. I’m not counting on a royalty check anytime soon that will pay the mortgage. I’ll be lucky to get a royalty check that buys a loaf of bread and some bologna.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I made choices. I knew what I was doing and I’ve learned a ton about publishing and the book business. I’ve earned back the cost of producing Adrift and then some. But, let’s face it. my book was on the Amazon best seller list for about 8 hours — topped out at about #27 in historical fiction, #35 in literary fiction before plunging to the basement like an elevator with the cables cut.
My friend’s Facebook message got me to wondering about the status of Adrift. It has been a while since I checked the ranking and found I’ve forgotten how to access my Amazon sales data. I settled instead for scrolling through the book’s reviews and realized there are reviews I’ve never seen. Yes, the truth is I’ve been feeling bad about my lack of literary success and haven’t been too eager to give my Amazon site close examination. 
 But, tonight my feelings of disappointment changed. I want to share this Amazon review. It really cheered me up. This reviewer, I honestly don’t know him, got so much about what I was trying to do artistically with Adrift — got the art and imagery, got the humor, felt sad in the right places, saw my main character the way I’d hoped.No matter what, if I can connect with even one reader on this level, I’m happy, and that’s the truth.
 5.0 out of 5 stars
The best story I’ve read for a long time
July 24, 2013
Pete Barber (Lake Lure, NC) – See all my reviews
This review is from: Adrift in the Sound (Paperback)
Lizette is a gifted abstract painter with severe personality issues–perhaps bi-polar–although I don’t believe this was stated. Pressured to achieve as a child, when her artist mother committed suicide something snapped inside Lizette. Estranged from her father, she drifts into bad company, and makes unwise life-choices. The story follows Lizette as she struggles with mental illness and searches for meaning in her life. Although set in the Seventies, no attachment with that era is required to connect with this story.

I read because I love to lose myself in another world and experience life vicariously through someone else’s eyes. Also, as an aspiring writer, I read to learn. For me, reading Adrift in the Sound was tantamount to attending a fiction writing master class.

Tactile scene settings sucked me into a story as multi-layered as one of Lizette’s beautifully described oil paintings. Ms. Campbell colors her scenes with fine details, often transforming the settings into another character to add emotion. For example, after an argument with her father, Lizette turns her back on him and the house and takes the path in the rain toward the small cabin her mother used as her artist’s studio. Lizette perceives the cabin like this: “Two big windows stared into the tangled garden, watching the house through rain-streaked eyes.” Or her view of the car ferry that will take her to Orcas Island in the Puget Sound, where much of the story unfolds: “The wide-bodied boat nudged the dock, bounced against the pylons, settled into its berth like a lumbering beast nestling into a safe burrow.” Or the way the ocean appears to her: “The afternoon sun scattered silver sequins across the water.” I confess I have a ton more highlights on my Kindle; so many I had to stop myself. Unable to choose which to use in the review, I simply chose the first three–they’re all exceptional.

Lizette’s world is populated by a cast of complex, multi-faceted characters. Many are unpleasant. All were real to me. A brutal sexual assault early in the story permanently scars Lizette and scarred this reader along with her. It happened because she takes crazy chances and trusts the wrong people. But don’t see her as a weakling. On a number of occasions she does significant harm to those whom she perceives as a threat. Although, as I watched Lizette become a danger to others, I was never quite sure of her intentions. That’s a measure of how off-balance the author kept me, and how hard I was rooting for Lizette.

Lizette’s affinity for the native Indians who live on Orcas and form her support group provides more wonderful characters whose lifestyle grounds the story in history and in nature. I have no connection with Native Indians or their customs, but I found their lives and beliefs and plain commonsense added to the palette of an already colorful story.

The novel is a deep, slow burn, and not without humor. One particular scene involving a large snake and an unpleasant junkie had me laughing so loud I woke my wife (I read at night). A larger-than-life character–self-described poet, Toulouse–is described in the eyes of Lizette’s friend, Marian thusly: “Toulouse moved off with a flourish, tipping a goodbye from the rim of his foolish hat. Marian watched him go, his self-importance shoved up his ass like a mop handle.”

Complex, troubled, and gifted, Lizette connects with the natural world on such a deep level that she pulled me along until I stood beside her marveling at the natural beauty of an ocean wave, or the fearsome power of the killer whales as they hunt in the Sound, or the subtle simplicity of an old Indian woman dancing in a mask of feathers and bear skin. She broke my heart as we watched a seal taken by a predator, or a pet dog injured. I know, as she does, it’s natural. You can’t interfere, you can’t help–but still, you share the stab of her guilt.

With more “Oh, didn’t see that coming” moments than I had any right to expect, Adrift in The Sound is the best book I’ve read in a long time. Check it out. You won’t regret it.

This review was originally written for “Books and Pals” book blog. I may have received a free review copy.

I haven’t thanked Pete Barber for this review, for lifting my spirits, for getting what I was aiming at artistically. He won’t be unthanked for long and that’s the god’s truth.
Honestly, thanks for visiting the Word Garden. It means a lot to me.
Adrift in the Sound Available from Amazon

Gems of Wisdom?

Where is the wisdom
We have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge
We have lost in information?
T.S. Eliot

 I found myself in an odd place, odd for me, that is. One of my poems was recently collected in an anthology of “elder” poetry, included in what the editors call a community of verse. Thing is, I never thought of myself as old. I’m thinking I can climb mountains and dig ditches, sing and dance and show my underpants!
The reality is I’m getting mail offering half-off on cemetery plots, with the warning that it’s never to early to plan ahead.
Writer Virginia Woolf once noted that “One of the signs of passing youth is the birth of a sense of fellowship with other human beings as we take our place among them.” So, guess I’ve arrived at that place of fellowship.
Don’t know how old Virginia was when she wrote about passing youth, but regret she never took her place in the community of elders. At age 59, depressed and despondent, she filled the pockets of her overcoat with stones, waded into the River Ouse and drowned herself.
We still have her books—my favorites are Orlando and Mrs. Dalloway—but we didn’t have her for as long as we might have wished. Just imagine what wonders she might have produced in her 70s, 80s, even 90s!
In the new anthology from AgeSong, Gems of Wisdom, we have the words of those who’ve lived long and bravely. The poems and lyrical prose come from elders living throughout California. Here’s a funny one:

Identity Crisis

by Phylis Ann Warady
Whether the structure is splendid or crass,
Wrought of wood, brick, stucco or glass,
Most modern architecture,
Invites this conjecture.
Should one pray, deposit or buy gas?
Here’s a short list of favorite things from elder residents at AgeSong assisted living community at Lakeside Park in Oakland:


People who arrive on time
Big guitars
Planting something and seeing it come up
Dresser drawers and treasurers found
Music and chocolate and poetry
Being with people you love

Elder poet Angelica Chiong had this to say about the beauty of aging in her poem “Afternoon of Our Lives: “

Magically in deep connection with Mother Earth

Purposely re-discovering aging as ascent not decent.

Gems of Wisdom is a collaboration with Barnes & Noble Booksellers and elders and poets throughout California to benefit AgeSong Institute, which is redefining elder living and care. The book honors those who’ve lived long enough to attain culturally cherished virtues—patience, humility, courage and compassion. Order copies from online booksellers, $11.95.

Feelin’ That Big Red "L" on Your Forehead?

Whether you’re a struggling writer, or just know one, you’re probably aware that rejection is part of the game. Good eggs — hardboiled to soft — counsel us writerly types to remain calm, remind us that rejection happens even to the best. You are not a Loser. Here’s a list of  50 esteemed writers who were told NO several times, but kept on chugging.

Thanks to literary agent Nathan Bransford for bringing this comfort to my attention. The list has been making the rounds on the Internet so I’m not taking any credit for compiling it or finding it. Alls I’m saying is, if you’re a writer and you’re feeling down, here’s a warm blanket to cozy you:

1. Dr. Seuss had his first book (And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street) rejected 27 times before finally being accepted by Vanguard Press.

2. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was rejected 20 times before becoming published.

3. James Joyce’s Ulysses was judged obscene and rejected by several publishers.

4. Isaac Asimov’s had many stories rejected, never sold, or eventually lost.

5. John le Carre’s first novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, was passed along because le Carre “hasn’t got any future.”

6. Jasper Fforde racked up 76 rejections before getting The Eyre Affair published.

7. William Saroyan received an astonishing 7,000 rejection slips before selling his first short story.

8. Jack Kerouac’s work was rejected as pornographic.

9. Joseph Heller wrote a story as a teenager that was rejected by the New York Daily News.

10. Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows was not intended to be published, and was rejected in America before appearing in England.

11. James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room was called “hopelessly bad.”

12. Ursula K. Le Guin: An editor told Le Guin that The Left Hand of Darkness was “endlessly complicated.”

13. Pearl Buck’s first novel, East Wind: West Wind received rejections from all but one publisher in New York.

14. Louisa May Alcott was told to stick to teaching.

15. Isaac Bashevis Singer, before winning the Nobel Prize, was rejected by many publishers.

16. Agatha Christie had to wait four years for her first book to be published.

17. Tony Hillerman was told to “get rid of the Indian stuff.”

18. Zane Grey self-published his first book after dozens of rejections.

19. Marcel Proust was rejected so much he decided to pay for publication himself.

20. Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen: Chicken Soup for the Soul received 134 rejections.

21. William Faulkner’s book, Sanctuary, was called unpublishable.

22. Patrick Dennis: Auntie Mame got 17 rejections.

23. Meg Cabot: The bestselling author of The Princess Diaries keeps a mail bag of rejection letters.

24. Richard Bach: 18 publishers thought a book about a seagull was ridiculous before Jonathan Livingston Seagull was picked up.

25. Beatrix Potter: The Tale of Peter Rabbit had to be published by Potter herself.

26. John Grisham’s A Time to Kill was rejected by 16 publishers before finding an agent who eventually rejected him as well.

27. Shannon Hale was rejected and revised a number of times before Bloomsbury published The Goose Girl.

28. Richard Hooker: The book that inspired the film and TV show M*A*S*H* was denied by 21 publishers.

29. Jorge Luis Borges: It’s a good thing not everyone thought Mr. Borges’ work was “utterly untranslatable.”

30. Thor Heyerdahl: Several publishers thought Kon-Tiki was not interesting enough.

31. Vladmir Nabokov: Lolita was rejected by 5 publishers in fear of prosecution for obscenity before being published in Paris.

32. Laurence Peter had 22 rejections before finding success with The Peter Principles.

33. D.H. Lawrence: Sons and Lovers faced rejection, and D.H. Lawrence didn’t take it easily.

34. Richard Doddridge Blackmore: This much-repeated story was turned down 18 times before getting published.

35. Sylvia Plath had several rejected poem titles.

36. Robert Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance faced an amazing 121 rejections before becoming beloved by millions of readers.

37. James Patterson was rejected by more than a dozen publishers before an agent he found in a newspaper article sold it.

38. Gertrude Stein submitted poems for 22 years before having one accepted.

39. E.E. Cummings named the 14 publishers who rejected with “No Thanks” in the book itself.

40. Judy Blum received nothing but rejections for two years and can’t look at Highlights without wincing.

41. Irving Stone’s Lust for Life was rejected by 16 different editors.

42. Madeline L’Engle’s masterpiece A Wrinkle in Time faced rejection 26 times before winning the Newberry Medal.

43. Rudyard Kipling: In one rejection letter, Mr. Kipling was told he doesn’t know how to use the English language.

44. J.K. Rowling submitted Harry Potter to 12 publishing houses, all of which rejected it.

45. Frank Herbert: Before reaching print, Frank Herbert’s Dune was rejected 20 times.

46. Stephen King filed away his first full length novel The Long Walk after it was rejected.

47. Richard Adams’s two daughters encouraged him to publish Watership Down as a book, but 13 publishers didn’t agree.

48. Anne Frank: One of the most famous people to live in an attic, Anne Frank’s diary had 15 rejections.

49. Margaret Mitchell: Gone With the Wind was faced rejection 38 times.

50. Alex Haley: The Roots author wrote every day for 8 years before finding success.

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