I know I’m supposed to have an elevator speech all lined up. At publishing conferences over the years, folks drilled this into me. “Know your pitch! Have your tag line ready!” But I’m not a tag line sort of person. I’ve never told a story without a few detours, or answered an open ended question with yes or no. If writing were painting, I’d want to be George Seurrat -many tiny points making a tapestry. (See Seurat, above!) The Vines We Planted is about people who love each other, but fail to do so without flaws. It’s about horses that give them solace, secrets that break hearts. It’s about how quickly depression can steal your will to live, and how healing takes place in surprising ways. It’s about Sonoma, about wine and food, and the intensity of the light in the vineyards on a perfect fall day.
Here’s the good news about being a pointillist writer (I just coined that phrase. What do you think?) Now that it’s time to promote the book, I have many options of the “angles” I can take. I’m being interviewed about mental illness, about horses as healers, about immigration in fiction, LGBTQ characters, and mother daughter relationships.
Wineries in Sonoma are opening their doors for readings, parties, and offering to carry the book. I’ve been invited onto a few podcasts, a videocast, and maybe (hopefully) will get some attention in the local paper. I’m visiting book clubs from Sacramento to New Jersey.
I hope to speak to groups who are working to reduce the stigma of mental illness, to adoptive parents about the joys and woes of being an adoptive family and to new writers about the path to publishing.
So, sorry for no elevator speech. This book reflects a lot of the issues I have lived through, but even more the ones I’ve witnessed as a mental health professional, a friend, and an ally. Those issues are complex and nuanced. We can’t always sum up life in the course of an elevator ride. But we can try to talk it through over the course of a bottle of wine!
The Vines We planted is available now for pre-order here:
Jennifer Golick’s office held small toys, silly comics, stress balls and board games to put her clients at ease. She said things in a straight forward, I’m–not-kidding kind of way. At the same time she made folks feel people so at ease, they could hear the truth without being knocked down by it. She proudly showed off pictures of her daughter and husband, and evidence of her marathons completed. She laughed easily, which we both knew was absolutely necessary in our field of work, although few do it enough. She made me coffee with extra half and half, and hugged our dogs when I visited.
Jennifer was kind when speaking of her staff, but held people accountable. The boys she treated received the gift of a very wise and experienced clinician with a youthful spirit. The families were treated with respect, with an understanding that they were parents who were hurting, not failures, that raising teen boys is, ironically, like a marathon. These folks had slipped and found themselves face down in the mud, but Jennifer was all about picking yourself up and brushing yourself off. And moving on.
When I heard the news on Friday that three social workers were being held hostage at a veterans home in Napa, a shiver went up my spine. You cannot do the work I’ve done and not considered this possibility – the angry ex-client, the schizophrenic off his meds, the teenager on meth. As therapists, we get in close to some of the darkest parts of anyone’s soul. We try to walk gingerly, to hold a candle not a spot light, and help the client shrink the shadows lurking there.
But inevitably, there are trip wires. There are spots too tender for a man to maintain his cool, there are secrets a woman is enraged you opened up. And often we are blamed.
It is a dangerous job, an often thankless one, and one in which there is little camaraderie or support. For the most part, few know the areas we traverse daily.
I watched the news on Friday, shocked and saddened when I heard all three hostages were murdered. And in the morning I saw that one was Jennifer. I had not even realized had shifted jobs to the veterans’ program.
I can’t begin to explain or understand the devastating loss her family is facing, the absolute horror they must be feeling, the anger and sadness. The hole she leaves will never be filled for her daughter, her husband, her family.
All I can speak to is my own experience. As an experienced family therapist myself, I find it hard to trust other providers. I know the tricks of the trade, know when they are in over their head, or bluffing. But I trusted Jennifer. I trusted her intuitively, and that only built as we knew each other longer. My tears flowed, as did my son’s, as we considered the reality of what transpired Friday, and the loss going forward. As the atrocious gun violence continues, it shouldn’t be shocking that I know a victim. The numbers are so high, it feels almost inevitable. And that in itself is what is shocking.
The world lost a wonderful, committed, warrior on Friday, who shared her compassion and wisdom to help those who suffer. Lives end so quickly with a gunshot. There is not time to say “wait”, or “goodbye.” I am grateful that my last email from Jennifer says, “Thank you Joanell, for your kind words.” I had written to her just to say thank you for her presence and focus when it was most needed.
I imagine an enormous welcoming party for Jennifer when she arrived on the other side. The relatives of the people she helped in her short time on earth would make a very large group. I have no doubt that she saved the lives of many of the boys she worked with, and lifted the hearts of their parents in painful circumstances. I pray we can go on with her work, caring for our youth and veterans, the sick and the lost, with her strength as a model in our hearts and minds. That the painful ending does not over shadow her beautiful soul, and love for life.
Rest in Peace Jennifer, and God Bless your loved ones.
Last Thursday, I spent the day at Mt. Zion/UCSF Hospital, for a myriad of appointments (all fine. Diagnosis= aging.) I’m a well experienced medical appointment attendee: my mother had a chronic illness from the time I was born until she passed when I was thirty, and my daughter also manages (with grace) a difficult chronic illness. In between the years I cared for one or the other, I chose to work for UCSF for five years, so as I wander the hallways, I am strangely at home.
One of my sisters hates hospitals to this day, after years of literally growing up in waiting rooms while my mother had one of her twenty surgeries. I kind of like them.
I know, it’s a strange thing to admit. I think it is a combination of two things. One is enjoying competence – I can advocate like a roaring mama bear, find you something tasty and allergy free in the café, grab the most compelling magazine in the gift shop, and learn the nurse’s life story – possibly in Spanish – all in an afternoon.
Other people know how to navigate cities, political conversations, war zones, and zoning wars. I get hospitals.
The other reason I’m comfortable here, is hospitals have a mission: People are not well, and other people take care of them, and ideally, make them better. In our current socio-political climate, I appreciate the straight-forward purpose, as well as the quiet little spaces we chronic care-takers know.
In any case, I had four hours to kill here at UCSF Mt. Zion.
I settled into the garden area of the cancer center, after my time in the meditation room but before I cave and go buy a cookie and caffeine. A quilt hangs on the wall. Each square has a nicely crafted symbol, made by various women who apparently attended a women’s health conference in 2006. Looking closer, I see it was hosted by the Center of Excellence in Women’s Health here at UCSF.
I smiled, because twenty-one years ago, I worked intensely for days to help write the grant to create this program. Clinton’s administration had decided to establish six Centers of Excellence in Women’s Health around the country, and I was tasked to help a team of physicians and administrators at UCSF who had decided to take on the proposal, a bear of a federal grant.
I came in to the process shy – I wasn’t a doctor or an administrator. I had been hired at UC as a new therapist a few years before. When I realized my position had an end date, I asked if I could take a crack at writing another grant, to keep the program going. Four years later, about ten grants funded, I’d risen to a leadership role in a very small pond. But joining the team for this grant was wading into a much larger lake.
The head of OB/GYN wandered in and out of the conference room, encouraging us, as did the head of Psychiatry at one point, while I sat between a cardiologist and an amazing champion for women’s health, Dr. Nancy Milliken.
I frequently wondered how I had gotten to this table, but focused on writing with our small team. People said what they wanted the grant to be about, and we wrote it down. People said they needed this research incorporated, or that concept stressed, and we wrote it in. People’s impressive bios were sent to us in the middle of the night, and in the morning we were writing them in.
“What’s most important here? For women’s health – what matters most?” Dr. Milliken occasionally asked us. I kept looking over my shoulder to see who she was talking to. Me? OB/Gyn services? Mental Health? Female Physicians, Women of Color in Research? This was a big mission.
What I remember most clearly is eating pizza very late at night, while nursing my six month old daughter, Casey. When I needed to write more, we passed the baby around the table. I had been in this room writing for most of each day for a week, going home to sleep for a few hours and see my four year old, then heading back. Nancy Milliken, then an Ob/Gyn, praised us all continually, but especially cheered me on for being the nursing mother/writer at the table. I told her I was certainly comfortable writing about the importance of mental health services for new mothers.
My daughter called my cell as I was admiring the quilt. She wanted to Face-time so I could see the snow blanketing her campus in Washington State. In turn, I showed her the quilt hanging at Mt. Zion.
“I was there for the first time we held this conference,” I told her. “I ran the teen health portion! I think it was 1996.”
“Awesome! Do you think they have internships available?”
(She is a college senior. All roads lead back to the imminent question of what will happen in May.)
I imagined her resume, already impressive, with this addition for the Center of Excellence application: I was the baby at the table twenty one years ago!
I wondered if her career plan, to write about “Environmental, Immigration and Health Care Justice,” came from early childhood memories of grant-writing binges like that one.
I left for my next appointment, spirits buoyed.
On long writing days, when I wonder how I chose this particular vocation, and whether it makes any difference in the world, I need to remember this quilt. To consider the Center of Excellence in Women’s Health, still going, which started as an idea, then words on paper. And a group of women, around a table, dreaming.
I say accidental, because I didn’t set out to write a romance. I wrote about the characters who popped up in all my short stories: A man who is half in love with his horse; a woman he used to love; his mother who drinks to much; her cousin who is afraid of ICE and is trying to protect her child; a different man with cancer, grappling with the choices he’s made, an uncle who makes wine, a woman who paints her way through heart ache.
Is it my fault they were all looking for love?
Every book I’ve written – YA, mystery, fiction – has a romance. So perhaps I really do fall into that category of romance writer?
Lately, I’ve thrown all bias to the wind and read whatever is coming up as “popular” on Amazon. Call it market research. There’s some crap out there, for sure. But there’s also some excellent reads that are under-valued because they fall into the wrong genre – romance, sci-fi, thriller.
Reading “romance novels” never occurred to me.
Or did it?
What is my favorite childhood book, Little Women, if not a romance? The English Patient, Bel Canto, Correlli’s Mandolin or Cutting for Stone? From Jane Austin’s Emma to Chimamanda’s Ngozie Adichie’s Americana, from Harry Potter to Beauty and the Beast, I’m a sucker for love story.
But can I call myself a romance writer? With my politics being what they are (marching in a pink hat), and absolutely no women in scanty clothing to be found on my cover, I’m not sure I fit in.
And then I listened to a podcast (because that’s what I do as I walk the hills in Sonoma). Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/podcast/) is hosted by Sarah Wendell (Smart Bitch Sarah). I don’t remember how I got to it, but after a few minutes of the interview I found myself entranced with episode #281.
Sarah actually played a tape of a panel she moderated for a conference called Politics and Prose on the Wharf.
The writers, Alisha Rai and Alyssa Cole, were both romance writers who also identified themselves as women of color. Their panel was called “Romance and the Resistance.” So yeah, that got my attention.
What really got my attention was this:
The fact that Alisha Rai apparently hands out buttons that say. HEA (Happily Ever After) is resistance. (Wow!)
Alisha saying this:
I don’t think that idealism is naïve if you, if you are cognizant of all the terrible stuff in the world, but it is, every day you get up and you do that, where you are genuine and you’re authentic and you’re excited about something, whether it’s even the smallest things, like, oh, my God, I got out of bed and I brushed my teeth. Like, that’s something, you know? So I think doing that every day, especially if you’re, you know, a woman, a marginalized member of society in one way or another, I think it is, it is amazingly, just resisting everything that’s pushing you down and telling you not to.
Alyssa talking about layers of subversiveness in romance writing:
….the subversiveness of women choosing happiness, finding people that make them happy, and finding careers and going after their goals, which I think is a part of most romances. You don’t generally find ones where women are just. . . “I’m just going to, you know, not do whatever makes me happy, whether that’s a job, having children, or, you know, starting a charity, whatever, and marry some bum who’s going to beat me up.” Like, that’s not a romance.
. . . and then there’s the other layers, for example, LGBTQ romance where you say, okay, we’re going to live at the end of this story, we’re going to have happy endings, we’re not going to die; and romance for people of color where it’s like, okay, we’re actually going to show you being loved and appreciated and not just a side character in a story.
The interview continues – the writers talking about the power in giving diverse characters real lives, with challenges, sure, but also success. The magic of creating women who were feisty, great friends and good people, who happen to fall in love. Saying that, in this current climate, a happy ending is radical. We need to give people hope.
Listening to it, I did a little happy dance in the street.
Who knew happy endings were political? That writing romance might ironically be more political than writing an angry article about our greedy, rude, orange-headed puppet? (I could write that too, by the way, in my sleep.) Who knew that romance is a political weapon? Apparently, these smart bitches.
So, on this Valentine’s Day week, I’m excited as I prepare for the launch of my book, The Vines We Planted. It’s a love story, full of diverse characters who find that love can overcomes economic divides, political oppression, homophobia, and even the walls around the heart.
I’m so excited to be an accidental romantic revolutionary.
The Vines They Planted, May 2018. Wido Publishing. Launch details soon!
In the airport, waiting for another delayed flight, and Jerry Garcia is singing in my earbuds. When you’re waiting for a miracle. I find myself reflecting on the things we wait for, and the roads we take.
About thirty years ago I took my college degree, two suitcases and a back pack full of journals and got on a plane from Newark to San Francisco. My best friends took me to the airport and waved goodbye at the curb, after sharing the end of a joint for courage. I curled up in a window seat, crying for approximately five of the six hours, in sheer panic. I had turned down my law school acceptances at the last minute. I had no job or clear path and no discernible reason to leave on that day, August 8, 1986. Just an internal diving rod that seemed to point as far West as the country would allow. I had visited San Francisco once. I’d read Kerouac’s On the Road, tasted Napa Cabernets and hugged a real Redwood tree not far from where the Grateful dead lived. (!!)
Neither New Jersey’s pastoral green fields nor their gritty cities could satisfy me any longer. My sister waited for me on the other side of the country in a spiffy new red VW cabriole. She was prepared to share her apartment, friends and adventurous spirit.
“It’s just for a year,” I told my parents and friends. Just a year, I told myself on the plane. You’ll go home again.
I didn’t know I’d meet my husband the night I arrived in San Francisco, my face still tear soaked. That the fog rolling in and out across the water would become the blanket of my days; that I’d raise small fine humans who grew up to the rhythm of the Bay; that my parents would follow me and finish their lives watching the sunset over this golden city; that my childhood friend would join me for a weekend and never leave. That I would become a true Californian, slowly shedding ski jackets for flip-flops.
Had I known what I was embarking on – a whole life – would it have been easier or harder to get on that flight?
Now my oldest son prepares to take the reverse geographical leap, heading off to explore life in Manhattan. He might be back in six months, clear that it’s not for him. It’s New York – loud, expensive, intense and winter is. .. well, winter. Or he might dig into New York the way I did with San Francisco. He’ll eat the cannolis of my childhood, build campfires in the Catskills, fight for a spot on a sweltering NJ beach day and run downtown for half-price tickets to the theater. With any luck, he’ll jump on one of those stages himself. I’ll enjoy the ride as his observer for as long as he chooses to stay, visiting as much as possible.
When I arrive back East, the same friends that took me to the airport years ago will be waiting, ready to share a glass of wine and continue our endless conversation. They always are. Three thousand miles and thirty years hasn’t made a dent in our closeness. They will be my son’s New York family.
I went with these friends to see Jerry Garcia perform a few days before I left New Jersey. We sat on the grass on a balmy August evening, singing along, feeling the bittersweet moments before parting, like sweet fruit about to spoil. Someone slipped a cassette tape into my hand for the trip across the country, a live Jerry tape. A passport of sorts.
On the plane ride, Jerry crooned and I cried as the tape played over and over. Together we travelled to my new life.
Buy me no baubles and I’ll save you the trinkets. Here are the gifts we really need this holiday season. This gifts we give all year. This gifts for which we forget to send thank you notes. The gifts that shape the giver. My Christmas list for the world.
The gift of listening. Even when your blood is running hot, and you don’t quite recognize the person across the table any more, when you are questioning how the two of you became friends/lovers/business partners/spouses, and all you can see are the horns pushing out of the other one’s head. There is the gift of taking a deep breath, sealing your mouth, and listening. Quiet is a gift.
The gift of time. This is the gift of letting the dishes pile until they topple, your eyebrows grow bushy, your car losing oil, and your work piled on the desk, all because you gave your time elsewhere: to the care of a sick child, to the creation of a new piece of art, to the grieving friend, to walk the rambunctious and anxious dogs.
The gift of your voice. When you scrape up the money for a ticket to Washington DC, stitch your pink hat, walk through the cold and yell out in unison that Love will Trump hate. That is a gift. When you write another email to your congressman, and picture them reading it and having an ha moment, changing their otherwise hateful vote. When you blog about the inequities in Puerto Rico, or send a thank you note to the woman who outed her abusive (congressman) boss. When you simply stand up, in a crowd and say “Hey, I saw what you did.” When you refuse to be silent.
The gift of your vision. There is a way out of our current madness, a way to save ourselves, our country and our planet, but not without the vision of thousand open minds. And your vision, though it may seem foggy, obscure and even irrational to you, might be the one that changes the tide. We cannot know if it is never shared.
The gift of your story. The way your grandmother pinched your arm if you told her not to blow smoke on you, the night your house burned down but your dog found her way, the day you identified your attacker in court, the seashell you found with your dead friend that still hangs quietly by your mirror. Every story awakens some part of us, draws an invisible connection from one to another. In the points of intersection, the reader and writer can no longer be strangers. Together, sharing, reading and writing, we create a web. But we cannot find one another in the dark, if our stories are never told.
The gift of kindness. Kindness is rooted in authenticity. It takes thoughtfulness and intention. It is saying “come in,” to a neighbor who looks down, when you were ready for bed. It’s turning the car around to check on the person on the side of the road,. It’s my son’s high school teacher baking cookies on his 17th birthday. It’s reading the work of a young writer, gently. It’s walking the lost child home.
The gift of love. This is, after all, the gift that trumps all gifts. To open your sore and tired heart to another soul, to let them in, despite the very high odds that they will some-day disappoint you. To look them right in the eyes and say, in your words or in your gaze, I love you. This is the gift the world needs most.
On any given moment as I traverse our beautiful Sonoma square a dozen emotions can rise – amazement that the square is unscathed, sadness for the many children who lost their homes but still decorate the square with their art, hope for the world if one community can find a way through devastation with grace, fear at the ease with which our worlds can erupt, guilt for still having a home, impotence at not knowing how to help more.
This is real life. These feeling are appropriate in Puerto Rico, in Sudan, in Syria and Houston. The guilt and impotence could rise in a walk in Oakland, where the homeless camps have grown near the freeways, in Santa Rosa where miles have been destroyed by fire, in Iran, where the earthquake left thousands homeless.
What do we do?
Write a check? Get on a plane across the world to volunteer? Pressure congress to treat Puerto Rico like is it part of our nation (which it is). Serve lunch at a shelter? All of the above?
This year, I wrote some checks, volunteered a little, sent letters to congress occasionally and prayed. It feels meager, even miserly, in the face of my still-standing home, my full larder, my relatively healthy body.
I am ready to take on a larger burden. Except I don’t think it will be a burden. I know from the past that real service is good food for my soul, and I will feel not burdened but lightened by sense of purpose, even if it is a relatively small purpose.
There are so many among us who dedicate their lives to protecting our planet, to serving the poor, to fighting fires metaphorically in every part of the world.
There were times in my life that I counted myself among them. Serving homeless families for long days in a basement of a church. Sleeping on a sidewalk for months in protest of our state’s investments in South Africa. Taking care of twelve little girls at a time as they experienced nature for the first time, far from their homes in the city. Shepherding dozens of teens through the perils of college applications, without a parent. Perusing laundromats for low income young mothers who might need help, and offering them healthcare. Taking a group of five year old in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco to get their first library card. They were the clearest, most meaningful and joyful times of my life.
This past Saturday night in the Sonoma Square, the community gathered and celebrated the lights being lit on the square. A young girl took the stage and sang to us. Amongst the scent of hot chocolate, cider and wine. Despite the noise of running children, traffic and many humans in a small space. In a pretty white dress and with a brave smile, she sang boldly, offering a beautiful, heart opening rendition of Silent Night.
She had lost her home, but dedicated the song to her neighbor, who had saved her dog.
She is my inspiration as I roll up my sleeves for the next opportunity to serve. We don’t stop singing the face of devastation. When we lose our home, we thank God for our dog. And in the chaos and jumble of life, we return to our faith, which for her is the story of a baby being born on a cold winter’s night.