Christmas Sweaters for Congress

View story at Medium.com

Christmas Sweaters for Congress.

Bah humbug is too strong a word for my feelings about the holiday season. I don’t hate it, I just have a few things I enjoy and a whole lot about it I don’t.

Things that make the season palatable:

Hallmark movies. Stop judging. Actually, I don’t care — go ahead and judge. They’re terrible. And yet so easy to consume. No part of my psyche is challenged in any way. After an hour on Facebook, Instagram, and NPR, I sure as hell need a dose of “nothing about this is real” Hallmark escapism.

Secondly, I like the smell of pine. No judgement now, is there? We all like it. It’s probably an evolutionary DNA thing. Just a thought though- could we just bring a few bows into the house, not chop down thousands of trees? Maybe skip the massive amounts of useless presents underneath? We could still choose a day to gather around the pine boughs, preferably with a few friends and a nice bottle of wine. People who really like being with their families could meet them at church. The rest of us just need to find a cork screw…

Finally, the third thing I like about the holidays is this sweater a friend gave me a few years ago. It’s comfy. and classy — no shiny nosed reindeer or overweight man in red. Just an off white knit garment with the word “joy” in gold, written in pretty cursive handwriting (like they have in Catholic school). I mostly wear it because it matches everything and doesn’t itch, but also, I admit, with the hope that at some point the word might sink in.

If I wear the word “joy” for five out of seven days, all season, perhaps I’ll start to sparkle too? I’ve considered adding others sweaters to the mix, with this absorption theory in mind. “Energetic,” “Organized,” and “Party Girl” all come to mind as good options for me. Possibly, I could address my deeper concerns with sweater sayings. “Small Carbon Footprint” written in black recycled ribbon would be exciting. “Still Optimistic” in candy cane red -so cute, right?

Maybe I’ll send President Trump a Christmas Sweater! Picture the word “Compassionate” in the perfect shade of orange. Melania can have one too. Hers might say, “Actually, I do care.”

Perhaps the entire Senate needs Christmas sweaters by Joanell. “Honest,” “Strong Spine,” or “Got a conscience?” are just a few — off the top of my head. You all can weigh in with some other ideas. “Loves Babies even after they’re born!” “Listens to Women,” “I owe the NRA nothing!” Ah yes, the possibilities are endless.

I’m pretty sure I can sell a crap ton of these by Christmas. I’m off! Setting up the web-site, cutting a deal with Amazon, on the phone to China to get in on their cheapest fabrics with no regard to treatment of workers.

God bless us one and all, I’ve caught that Christmas Spirit!

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On Retreating to Tuscany

I recently went on a yoga/writing/living retreat called On Being Human, run by the fabulous Jen Pastiloff.

 

Below is a piece I wrote, reflecting on this wonderful experience.  Photo credit for almost the photos goes to the amazingly talented Barbara Potter, retreat photographer.

 

On Retreating to Tuscany

In Florence, you walk and talk, eat and drink, until everything tight begins to let go. On the Ponte Vecchio it occurs to you for the first time that bridges are really meant to bring people closer. You decide that Aperol is underrated, believe you might start something new in this country that changes everything about you, and hope that it doesn’t hurt too much. You drop three coins into the receptacle in front of the Madonna statue, the change clinking loudly as you light a candle and wonder vaguely what else you could pray for, having arrived here.

In Tuscany, the skies are close. The stars swoop down and brush your cheek when you look up into the night. The red and violet streaks of sunset caress the faces of the women by the pool. The branches of the olive tree catch the early morning fog as it recedes over the thick green hills. Your soul skips over the horizon, gleeful, thrilled to finally see you again.

In retreat, you find your heart opens, bit by bit, until an almost uncomfortable gush of love floods out. Love pumps for everything – for the women you travel with, for your tender feet that traversed the miles of cobblestones, for the dog that pants loudly at your feet during meditation, for the ones you lost who hover nearby – gossamer spirits basking in the scent of lavender and burning wood.

In quiet moments, you lift your pen, but find it dry. You think of home, but can barely recall the declarations you made there. You stretch your neck, trying to sit tall as you meditate, but find the hammock calls to you instead. You wander down the road with the dog and find a creek of bliss, peace pooling at your feet. The hound leaps into the water with abandon. You cry.

Late at night, the wine flows, the chatter grows, you try to invent new ways to say I love you. You laugh so hard your ribs have to stretch wide in a gaping bone-grin, your full belly falling out like a secret you once found embarrassing. Someone rests her hand on your shoulder and you feel the connection down to your toes. I’ll hold on if you do.

In morning yoga your limbs reach up, grasping for understanding. Your toes sink down into the lessons you’ve learned, the Om of many women lifts your heart right from your body, a cardiac transcendence. You stand like a tree, hoping for balance. You giggle as you fall.

In Florence again, we part at the train station like a scene from a Greta Garbo movie. We stand awkwardly in the sun, sticky with sweat, gelato and tears. We press our lips to someone’s cheek, feel arms wrapped tightly around us. We imagine a way we might all meet again. We place one finger to our heart, one to the earth, and bind our souls with love.

We are thinking already of the miles and journeys before us: shaking trains, long walks, airports, taxis, memories, phone calls, missed connections, new connections, the hollowness of being alone again, the power of being known.   Our last wave goodbye is like a ripple in the sea moving across the water, our hearts caught in the current. We set out across the ocean of love, tied to one another, but freer than ever before.

 

 

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Beyond Miss Havisham

I was thrilled to offer a guest post on this really beautiful blog today, about combating the stigma of mental illness through fiction writing.

Choices Blog, Madeline Sharples

Fiction: another way to erase stigma

My guest today, Joanell Serra, explores the idea of reducing the stigma of mental illness by openly describing the mental illnesses fictional characters experience. That is to say, being open and communicative about mental illness in fiction and/or real life helps reduce stigma and paves the way to recovery rather than hiding some pretty grotesque characters in corners as was done to Miss Havisham, in Charles Dickens Great Expectations.

With that in mind it is easy to understand that the characters in her debut novel, The Vines We Planted, are deeply portrayed and very well written so that they can work through the many emotional and challenging issues they encounter in her book.

Please help me welcome Joanell Serra during her WOW! Women on Writing book tour.

Can we reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness through fiction?

by Joanell Serra

When we think of characters with mental illness in fiction, there are many extreme examples to choose from: Billy Pilgrim from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Sethe from Tony Morrison’s Beloved,Mr. Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre.  But few of these characters are contemporary people who the average reader might imagine dinner with. They are in and out of delusions, locked away, and portrayed as very dangerous to others.

What if the characters we identify with, the ones we fall in love with and even idolize, displayed their experiences with mental illness?

What if Hermione used her magic wand to help her anxiety disorder? If Katniss Everdeen’s mother had access to a good grief counselor? If Jack Reacher sought help for his anger issues?

As a therapist, I know there is no “magic bullet” for mental illness. A person can heal through psycho-analysis, Cognitive Behavioral counseling, medication, meditation, exercise, diet, and even yoga. Each of us, whether we face a serious depressive episode, bipolar disorder or even schizophrenia, have options.  My hope is that by including a character in my novel with a serious depression, I offer both a character my readers can connect with, and a chance to experience her gradual recovery. Depression is treatable. But in order to get treatment, a person needs to reach out. My character waits too long to let anyone know how she is suffering, and there are consequences of this.

So why don’t people who are suffering with a mental illness reach out?

Easy answer – the stigma.

Think of the anonymous line we have that you can call if you’re depressed. They’re great because they save lived, but no-one needs to talk to a stranger anonymously for a toothache.

Patients with diabetes are not afraid to mention it at work.

Families don’t scramble to hide it if a grandparent has a heart attack.

We treat mental illness like it is a moral failing, not an illness, and so of course patients are slow to ask for help.

Memoirs and personal narratives about mental illness will help educate many, but fiction is another avenue. We learn lessons in fiction without realizing it, because we are so caught up in the lives of the characters, in the story.

I didn’t set out to write about a depressed woman as one of my five main characters, but when the story led me that way, I didn’t shy away from it either. Elena is not real, nor is her psychiatrist or her “plan” for recovery. But depression is real, and so is recovery. The tools Elena uses in the book really work in life, for many people.  If even one reader is more open to a loved one, friend, or co-worker with mental illness because of reading The Vines We Planted, then I feel rewarded.  I believe the answer is yes, we can reduce the stigma of mental illness through fiction.

When we take away the stigma, there is willingness to seek treatment. While treatment is not a guarantee, it often works, and offers hope. Hope cannot live in the darkness of fear, ignorance and judgement, but it flourishes in the light of acceptance.

About the The Vines We Planted:

In the heart of the California wine country, secrets seem to grow on the vines that Uriel Macon’s family have tended for generations.

Uriel, the winery’s young widower, steers clear of complicated relationships. He prefers the lonely comfort of his vineyard and his horses, until he is reminded of his love affair with Amanda Scanlon; a relationship that ended when she abruptly left the country years ago under a cloud of mystery.

When Amanda returns to Sonoma because of a family crisis, she tries to mend the broken relationships she left behind. In addition, she seeks the truth about her parents’ complicated history and her own parentage.

But Amanda’s unveiling of the past has devastating consequences. In the midst of California’s beautiful Sonoma Valley, the Scanlon family struggles to overcome harsh realities with dignity and grace.

Both Amanda and Uriel stretch to take care of their families, which are facing immigration issues, marital crises, and loss. While navigating these challenges, the couple must decide if they trust themselves to love again, or to finally let each other go.

A Sonoma local, author Joanell Serra’s debut novel is captivating, poignant, and uplifting, demonstrating how seeds planted long ago continue to grow. Sometimes into a strangling weed, sometimes offering a bountiful harvest.

Paperback:  285
Publisher: WiDo Publishing
Language: English
ISBN-10:  1947966022
ISBN-13:  978-1947966024
Amazon Link
WiDo Link

An excellent review:
” …the story of a family facing struggles…delicately and expertly woven together in a saga set in California around Uriel’s family vineyards, where each relationship appears to have a bearing on others… the plot is credible and surprising at the same time, and yet it all blends together well and combines to make an exciting and believable novel. The characters are so good that they could easily continue in a sequel. ” –Jane Finch for Readers’ Favorite

About the author:

Joanell Serra, MFT, lives with her growing children, husband, and dogs in the lovely Sonoma Valley. After years of publishing short stories, essays, and plays, The Vines We Planted is her debut novel.  She can be found polishing her second novel at a coffee shop, sipping a perfect Cabernet in a Sonoma winery or at her website.

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Talking about life…In the elevator or at the wine bar?

“What’s Your Book About?”


I get this question a lot.

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:

http://widopublishing.com/the-vines-we-planted-by-joanell-serra/


Print launch May 8!

E-book April 25th!
I’ll be announcing events and online interviews etc. here and on my Author Facebook page.

https://www.facebook.com/Joanellserrauthor/

But to really not missing anything, please join the mailing list!

Yours in writing,
Joanell

 

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A fallen warrior for peace.

Jennifer Golick

 

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.

 

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Words That Build

Laspexels-photo-541522.jpegt 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.

What?

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.

Nancy Milliken, MD, UCSF

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’ll check.”

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.

As so many wonderful things do.

 

flash-tesla-coil-experiment-faradayscher-cage-68173.jpeg

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Accidental Romance Writer ?

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Am I an accidental romance writer?

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:

  1. The fact that Alisha Rai apparently hands out buttons that say. HEA (Happily Ever After) is resistance. (Wow!)
  2. 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.

  1. 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.

Happy Valentines Day!

The Vines They Planted, May 2018. Wido Publishing. Launch details soon!

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