My youngest child is sixteen today.





He is still a child.

A simmering bundle of appetites. He will eat cake with abandon, roll hard in muddy Rugby fields, and drop his things across the house like change slipping from his pockets.  A hat, one sneaker, skate board hardware, candy wrappers, empty Arizona tea cans, and scribbled notes on photosynthesis all form a path from the front door to his boy lair. His clothes are piled like a small mountain range around the canyon of his bed, where he curls in innocent sleep.

He is a man.

He scoops the dog up in his arms, fifty pounds of wild. She calms as they merge, muscles wrapped around muscles. The dog acquiesces and licks his chiseled cheek, surrendering to his enormous heart.

On Sunday afternoons, his young amiga waits for him nervously on the corner. Her cheeks flush as she tosses her chestnut hair and steels her eyes to bring a seriousness to the encounter, then abandons it to grin and wave as we pull up. As he steps from the car to her arms, I know she does not see my child. She sees a kind and warm young man, his dark eyes inked upon her heart like a surgeon’s skilled tattoo.

He is a Mayan.

He comes from a land of turmoil, from a people of peace.  From the dream-like world of Guatemala. From a people who challenge the world’s oppression with only the blinding colors of an artist’s palette, woven into the fabric of their lives. The flaming red of too much spilled blood, the cobalt blue of the wide sky above Lake Atitlan, the yellow of the winter sun, the verdant green of the sweating jungles.

A people that call upon Gods that we dismiss too easily in an anthropological white-wash. Gods who fly with the wings of eagles, who spill the wombs of fertility to the dry earth. Gods who have forged their people — strong, fierce, wise people, in the fires of struggle.

He is a messenger.

At seven months, my small prince made his way from that far away world to ours, his tiny hands playing happily with our Westernized toys. He blew bubbles and smiles at the stewardess on the crowded plane and stretched his legs, already strong, to lift himself high.  He was sixteen pounds of joy, hurtling into our world like a comet, breaking us open to a different way of seeing, a new kind of love, a melding and reshaping of the family tableau.

There has been pain. There is always pain, when we stitch together disparate parts of the universe and try to call it the “same.”

But the edges have smoothed over time, each of us finding a new way to embrace the other, each of us finding a bottomless well of love for our boy, and our boy finding that no matter how deep he digs, no matter how far he goes, there will be more love. Always more love.

My youngest child is sixteen today.

He is launched into the world with the courage of a Mayan warrior, the heart of a loyal pup, the free spirit of a child, and the love of his tribe.

Watch him fly.



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Quiet Lightning. 11/7/2016 in SF.

Condo Condo by Blü Voelker


It is always awesome to be included in an exciting writing event. I’ll be reading on Nov 7, as well as have my piece in the book produced for that evening.

Thank you Quiet Lightning for including my work and encouraging writers. Th writers journey can be a bumpy ride through an intricate landscape. I am sure the evening will be a lovely respite a long the way for all of us!


Monday, Nov 7 2016 • 7pm doors / 7:30 show
The American Bookbinders Museum

355 Clementina St.
FREE + all ages

curated by Kelsey SchimmelmanChristine No

@ The American Bookbinders Museum

Wesley Cohen

josé vadi
Kate Ambash
Sarah Heady
Lorraine Lupo
Brennan DeFrisco
Cassandra Dallett

Elizeya Quate
Abe Becker
Allie Marini
J. K. Fowler
Sarah Henry
Keith Gaboury
Joanell Serra



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A Writer’s Bitter-Sweet Glossary.


There are words writers know and love, or know and hate. It’s visceral.

Words that are tossed around so often we forget what they meant before they became industry-speak.

In the complicated, tedious, and occasionally brilliant “writing life”, in a vocation that is completely reliant on our ability to use perfectly chosen, accurate words, these words that have become so blasé they are mundane seem even stranger, when we step away from them. Or get close, and examine.


Dictionary definition: The action or fact of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person.

Writer definition – A written article, story, poem, or piece of fiction -a piece of ourselves – sent off into the ozone to be accepted or rejected. Perhaps by a superior force, but perhaps by an overworked, underpaid cynic, nursing her Scotch in the corner of a bar.


Dictionary definition: The spurning of a person’s affections.

Writer definition:

  1. Our work is found wanting, weak, off target. It doesn’t fit with this market and won’t sell. It can be overwritten, under-edited, weak on pacing, or overly plot driven. Maybe it lacks a likeable protagonist, or a hate-able antagonist?  It could be so beautiful, it makes someone cry . . . but they need a laugh. Maybe it’s funny enough to set a reader giggling . . . but this editor is feeling dark and moody. In short, our piece is not wanted. Most likely, we’ll never know why.
  2. Verb: To spurn our affections via automated email.

Literary agent:

Dictionary definition: A professional agent who acts on behalf of an author in dealing with publishers and others involved in promoting the author’s work.

Writer definition:

  1. Possibly a cheerleader, someone to champion our work. Otherwise an overworked underpaid writer who has switched sides of the equation out of frustration. A new college grad who had an unpaid internship for three months, and now calls himself an agent.
  2. A greed driven sycophant who might leave a novel on the desk for twelve months, during which time the writer cannot seek another agent or publisher.
  3. A hands-on editor, who spends hours coaching the writer through a rewrite, without any guarantee they will receive payment. In short, they are all over the map – wonderful, generous souls and clueless, unprepared newbies propelled by unrealistic fantasies of discovering the next Stephen King. Strangely, they are hard to get, even with the lack of credentials needed.
  4. The gatekeepers to the big publishers, and increasingly the small as well. Writers love to hate them. But we want one anyway.


Dictionary definition: The action of speaking or acting on behalf of someone.

Writers Definition:

  1. The act of signing a paper with an agent – be he angel or sycophant. We may have our book shopped to publishers every-where, or the manuscript may quickly become the best place for the agent to rest a latte cup in the morning, next to a dying cactus.  We quickly know not to assume someone truly representing our interests.

Self publishing:

Dictionary definition: A writer publishes independently at one’s own expense.

Writer definition:

  1. We decide to invest in our work and share it with the world. We refuse to play the archaic game of trying to get published by the bloated “big houses” and receive 8% royalties on our life’s work, and we don’t wish to write vampire mysteries. However, the establishment has convinced most readers (and writers) that it doesn’t quite “count” because we didn’t get through the gates to the publishing heaven (AKA hell). It doesn’t matter if you’re Virginia Wolfe or Anais Nin. You are bravely offering your story to the world without an adequate marketing strategy.

A platform:

Dictionary definition: A raised level surface on which people or things can stand

Writer Definition.

  1. A place we stand on and tweet, snap photos, make pithy remarks, blog (like this), collect emails, and try desperately to garner attention before a market-driven literary agent (see above) Googles us, and decides not if our work has merit, but whether our platform can sell.
  2. A surface to stand on and rant at the Gods of Publishing.



Dictionary Definition: Exercise skill in making something.

Writers Definition:

  1. The actual stuff we should be working on – pacing, plot, setting, and the intricacies of realistic dialogue. (Versus learning to be a sexy tweeter with a huge platform to dance around on).

Example: A rare writer’s conference or event will focus on craft. The workshops are like sipping superb, well-aged wine while eating dark chocolate. Inspirational writers, often who have no platform, share their experience, and we laugh together, easily. Life is good.


Dictionary Definition: The preparation and issuing of a book, journal, piece of music, or other work for public consumption.

Writers Definition.

  1. Historically, to be accepted (not rejected) by a publisher. That someone will take our work and share it with others, and we will see our writing in print, on paper. It meant a “superior force” was saying, “This is good and we think others should read it.” It meant we could feel like a real writer.
  2. Currently, we are in the midst of a metamorphosis, in which publishing may be reverting to its initial, more pure, definition. To issue a book, or other work, for consumption by the public. To share one’s story.  We realize one can be a real writer, because one writes. Regardless of the gates, the keepers, the industry, the rejections and need for “submission.”

Conclusion: Writers write. We share our stories. We publish our work one way or another. And voila — we are real.


PS- I took the photo in Valencia, Spain, last summer.








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What to do in three days in NYC (according to a nostalgic Jersey girl who lives in California).

Labor Day Weekend in Manhattan.


Eat a pretzel from the street corner vendor.    Buy a pretzel on your first evening, while waiting in Bryant Park for your husband who flew in separately. Realize street pretzels are dry and overly salty and that the taste could never live up to the smell. You don’t care because it is a beautiful Friday night in Manhattan, and this park, which you don’t recall being here when you were a kid, is lovely. Green grass, a main fountain, and most of all — New Yorkers. Sit back on the randomly placed chairs, feel your feet ache after a full day of travel, and watch the world. Lovers greet one another. Children climb out of strollers to reach the fountain spray. An elegant Asian woman hurries by. Two old men, bearded, play chess. A crowd of twenty-somethings fill the bar. Breathe in the magic of a warm summer night in a vibrant city.


Bryant Park

Take the subway.   Nah, you did that when you were young and broke and had months, not days, to see the city. Walk everywhere, uptown, downtown, crosstown, then give up and grab a cab when you can’t walk anymore. Notice NYC cabs now have little TV’s.

Pay a fortune for Broadway tickets months ahead.   Have no real expectations whatsoever when you approach the half-price ticket booth, except to get tickets to something.

(This is what I learned from my parents, those many Saturday afternoons. The Zen of cheap ticket buying. We used to line up at the TKTS booth on Times Square while my father circled the block for an hour, rather than pay for parking. I can remember being dressed for the theater, cold air flying up my dress, without knowing for sure we’d make it to the theater. At 3:00, the sign went up. The plays that still had seats would be listed, and we’d start our list. What was our first, second and third choice. By the time we got to the front of the line, the plays would have changed and we would have to recalculate, checking the location of the seats, scanning the Times reviews, anxious about what we chose. We saw everything from Peter Pan and Cats to tiny obscure off Broadway shows. It’s in my blood.)

 See both The Humans and An American in Paris for half price, in great seats. Be blown away.



Go to all your old haunts.  Explore new areas because Manhattan is a constantly changing animal. Walk the High Line and discuss the merits of urban planning and renewal. Check out the new Whitney. Eat an impromptu brunch in the Meat Packing District, which is now cool and hip.  Watch gangs of hipsters drink too many mimosas, and smile because you are not them.


IMG_2309 (1).JPG

Rent Bikes from City Bike to just toodle around Manhattan. Are you crazy? You barely ride bikes in California. Why are you riding willy-nilly through Times Square, between screaming taxi drivers, pissed of cops and looming silveHmen on stilts? Return the bikes quickly before someone gets hurt. Take it as a momentary lapse in judgement brought on by Manhattan fever. Notice that your neck sort of hurts?

Visit everyone we know.  Plan to come back for a week just to see all the people we love in NY area. Make a list in the course of the weekend of whom you’ll visit. But this is your 25th anniversary, so wander, just the two of you, for days. Perfect.




Skip Central Park. No. Never skip Central Park. Lie in the grass, watching people play, and think of all the times you were happy here. Remember the movies you’ve seen here. Walk down the Harry Met Sally pathway. Picture Woody Allen and Dianne Keaton strolling by. Consider another dry pretzel.

Have your dinner reservations set up ahead of time. Eat impromptu dinners at neighborhood places. Realize that nothing compares to being able to sit down to dinner at 10:30 on a balmy night, and not feel rushed to go. Chat with waiters from foreign countries, waitresses from Jersey, people who live in our Midtown hotel, tourists from Nebraska, restaurant owners from Greece. Try not to get sloppy and cry because you’re so happy to be “home” amongst people from everywhere, but you fly out in the morning.


Battery Park

Ignore the pain in your neck.  Wake up Monday morning and realize the achy neck thing has turned into a throbbing infection thing. Find an urgent care. Get heavy duty antibiotics. Accept that you will never see a city without visiting its healthcare system. Be glad you’re in New York, not a tiny village in Timbuktu. Be grateful you have health care. Watch New York disappear in the rear view mirror as you drive to the airport, and wonder if you could manifest homesickness as a throbbing lump on the back of your head?

Don’t look at your phone too much, as it hurts your neck more.  Go through your photos one by one on the flight back. From that first evening at Bryant Park to the incredible colors of the sunset from Battery Park on Sunday. Look at your calendar, scheming to return. Be grateful that the universe conspired to get you there at all. Put some ice on your neck. Go home.



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Tough Questions.



Molly Serra


I am thrilled to be hosted  on a rocking site, The Manifest Station as a guest blogger.

Please click below to read my essay on caring for my niece Molly, after having been separated from her mother.

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A Bedtime Story


Wildsound Festival chose my story Night Swimming  to be read and recorded by a professional actor as part of their festival.

It’s like a free audio story – try listening before bed!

Night Swimming is a story from a novella I hope to share in the next few months, about the Donahues of Sonoma. A wacky family that might resemble my own family, albeit in Jersey.

In this story, a feisty character named Billy Donahue, fresh out of jail, is stealing a boat with the help of his reluctant daughter Meghan who is oh so close to getting her life together.

Below is the link as well as an interview of yours truly.

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The Review review.


It is a new feeling for me, to be reviewed.

The mother of a professional actor, I know what it is like to rush to the papers the day after a show opens. (And so far, have a happy feeling!)

But as a writer that has not yet published a book, I’ve never been “reviewed” publicly.

Until now!

I was surprised and touched  to read this review of Limehawk, a magazine I was fortunate to be published in. The reviewer, Rashi Roghati, says this about my story:

Most of all, the issue starts wonderfully, with Joanell Serra’s “Alma Mater” alongside Karen B. Golightly’s photographs. Golightly’s images are eerie, green, urban dreamscape/hellscape photos, contrasting at first with the setting of Serra’s story: a near-death experience that takes place in what starts out as heaven. For the protagonist, this is a slightly askew version of her college days several decades ago at Rutgers alongside a pragmatic, now-dead roommate who we realize was her last true friend. The story goes reaches beyond cleverness to an examination of why even lives lived true to one’s self can seem to sag, to burst, in our loneliest moments.

Here is the link to the review.

Thank you, Rashi, for your kind words.

Now back to the novel in progress!


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A Day in the Country.




To the deer that took her last breath on my property, then collapsed in the corner of the yard I never get to:

I’m sorry. I wish I had seen your body earlier, before it was stiff, your eyes still seeming awkwardly alive, staring at my bedroom window. Wish I could have saved you, though I have no idea how you died, or why. Only that your cold hoof rests on the bottom of the gate, as if begging for entrance.

To the woman who answers animal rescue calls for the County of Sonoma:

No, I did not kill the deer, nor did my dogs. And yes, I understand that it is my responsibility to have it disposed of, unless the deer happens to find its way to the street, in which case this is no longer my problem. No, I can’t lift the dead doe and toss in her in the street. Or I won’t.

To Frank, who advertises his animal abatement services on Google:

Thank you for saying your nephew would be right over. No, I agree, I shouldn’t let the dogs gnaw on her, she might be diseased. Do people actually toss the dead deer to their dogs while waiting for you?

To the dogs, a mother and her puppy, recently rescued by me and my persuasive children in a moment of insanity:

Get away from that gate. Get your nose off the poor dead girl’s paw. Do not gnaw.

To the deer who still lies on her side: 

Frank’s nephew is coming.

To Frank:

I’m sorry about your nephew. They can be unreliable at that age, I know. No problem, I can wait. I’m just sitting on the back deck watching her. No, I know I don’t have to. Yes, it is windy today, I can feel the chill right through the blanket I threw over my shoulders before I came out to yell at the dogs.

To the puppy:

Where is my other shoe?

To the deer:

I don’t know why I’m standing on the grass, ten feet from you, watching you like you might spring up at any moment. Why I am ignoring the dogs whining from inside the house where I’ve locked them, and not doing the chores that I listed on the back of an envelope. It feels decent, to be here with you. A witness. And I’m sad.  You look so young to die, like a doe just getting started. In the prime of her life.

Did you eat the ripe blackberries on Kenleigh Road last summer? Run unfettered in the fields that surround us? Tell me you at least had some sweetness in your short life, before coming to this unremarkable end. And how did you die? Why did you choose here, outside my window, on a very high hill, with views across the valley.

Then again, what a good spot you chose to die on. I’ll be back. I need to get a cup of tea.

To Frank:

It’s Ok. I’ll wait. Yes, traffic on 37 is always a bitch this time of day. Thanks for coming since your nephew is hung over.  No, I don’t know the Wilsons. I don’t really know the neighbors here .It’s a second home. A sheep? Mountain lions ate their sheep? Right down my street. Huh.

Well, I’m glad you know just where to go. See you soon.

To my husband, on the cell phone between meetings:

I forgot why we have a house in the country. Since we bought it we have had: a dead bird in the pool, an erupting septic tank, a broken dishwasher, clogged toilets, an enormous tree fall down on the deck, a lost tortoise, a gas leak, and, apparently, mountain lions. Yes, you can call me back later.

To my husband’s voice mail:

To be fair, we’ve also had a lot of fun. Fifty late dinners on warm summer nights, a party that ended with dancing so vigorous I threw out my hip, and many glasses of wine near the pool. A hundred hot tub moments. And four Christmas Eve’s. Sorry I was cranky. These mountain lion scares are real though. We have to keep an eye on the puppy.

To the deer who appears frozen and alone:

I’m sorry I can’t bury you. I tried to bury an animal here, just last winter.  I wanted my old dog’s body here with us. I wanted her spirit to breathe through the grass, her bones to feed the yellow flowers that bloom in late March.  I wanted to know my girl, my fuzzy dog-almost-a-bear with the enormous golden eyes, was still with me. But we found out, after four hours of fruitless digging, that you can’t dig a hole in rock.  The acres of land that surround us are deceiving, appearing to be fertile earth. They are actually rocks in disguise.  The hole, our attempt to dig a grave, is still there, the shovels abandoned on both sides. We took turns digging, then sitting and crying with our old girl, knowing she was about to die. Fuck, it’s cold out here.

To Frank, whose tattoos are so large and intricate that I am distracted for a minute from the purpose of your visit:

Thank you for coming. I’m glad to meet your surly nephew as well. I wish you hadn’t pointed out the “obvious” cause of the deer’s death, nor insisted I see the tiny fawn that was pushing its way from the mother womb when they apparently both succumbed to death. Thank you for explaining that most fawns are born in March, so this one was late, being almost May, which led to the untimely death of mother and baby.

I too am glad there are no maggots. An occupational hazard, I gather. Thanks for mentioning that.

No, I don’t have $125 in cash.

Really? You’re a retired San Francisco cop. Thirty five years on the force. I guess that fits. No, I never walk alone in that neighborhood at night. I hope to not need to call you again, but sure. I’ll take your card.

Yeah, I really don’t have cash like that in my pocket.

To the deer:

I wish Frank had been more gentle with you. I wish I’d buried you, even in a shallow grave, on the hill, where your ghost could emerge at night and run with the other ghost deer. Flirt with a translucent buck, raise your gossamer baby fawn. I feel I have done you a disservice, sweet, dead, doe.

To my dogs, the German Shephard mother and puppy who watch uneasily as the truck pulls away, the deer’s legs sticking out of the top of the flatbed:

I’m so glad you both survived the harrowing process of birth outside, in the wild. And that someone put you in their barn, for shelter. And that we came by a few weeks later and saw Cora, the skinny frightened Mama, nursing eight ravenous pups. And that I thought– we need to get you out of here, Mama.

To Cora:

Stop licking my face. I don’t know why I’m crying.

To the puppy:

Drop it. That’s my damn shoe.



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New Story in LimeHawk Journal

Rutgers-Campus-Photo (1)


The Limehawk Journal has published a story of mine online this week, called Alma Mater.

Rutgers friends beware, this is a quick sweet/sad story about life after death . . in New Brunswick, New Jersey!

Thanks to Limehawk for choosing this story.

Please click below to see the story, and tweet or share if you like it.

Enjoy! .

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When I Was Six.


Image result for woods at night


I emerged as a writer in 1971, age six, when I made the mistake of sharing with my mother a crumpled piece of paper with a few lines of prose.

The woods are quiet at night,

Except for one mouse, who scurries under the dry leaves . ..

It went on from there, describing my new found love for exploring the late night stillness in the thick woods behind our home.

“How do you know?” My mother asked me, stirring her milky tea. “What the woods are like at night?”

I closed my lips, firm.

I wouldn’t tell her that I escaped at night, out the kitchen door, while Johnny Carson blared in the den.  That if I skipped the second step off the back porch, and avoided the gravel driveway, they never heard me go.

“It’s a poem,” I explained. “It’s not real.”

A few weeks later, I stumbled, in an early Sunday morning stupor, to the breakfast table.  Strangely, the newspaper lie across my place at the table.

Being six, I moved it out of the way and poured my cereal into a chipped ceramic bowl, only dimly aware of my parents’ amusement.

“Look,” my mother insisted, “Look at the newspaper.”

In bold letters, on a page titled The Children’s Section, I noted my name.  My heart was an animal, scrambling around my chest. No.

“The Woods at Night” by Joanell Serra.

My poem was printed in exactly the same words I had scribbled on the wrinkled notebook paper, foolishly left in my mother’s possession.

My mother, my mentor, my agent.

The taste of betrayal destroyed my Cheerios.  I added more sugar, and looked away, unable to meet my parents’ expectant gazes.

“Aren’t you excited?” My mother finally said. “Everyone will see your poem! You’re a published writer.”

There was no need to answer. My mortification was apparent in my salty tears

My poems were like secrets, carefully tended, shared only with the select few I trusted.

I had been outed.

On Monday morning, my teacher greeted me with a copy of the paper under her arm and I plan: I would walk to every classroom, and read my poem out loud to them. From Kindergarten to fifth grade.

“We’re so proud of you,” she said.  She had skin that bagged slightly at each elbow, and a profusion of freckles on her long face. She was so old she had taught all my siblings before me, and was always kind. I could not refuse Mrs. Mulcahey.

We started in Kindergarten.  The restless children, only a year younger, had the brains of puppies. Their legs folded like sweaty sausages as they sat cross legged to listen, picking noses and poking one another. One boy in particular chewed on a pencil, devouring it while I read. Newsprint stained my fingers black.  Nausea crept up my throat, and I spoke so quietly the teacher had to take over for me.

We moved on, a reluctant fifth grader dragging me from room to room, my scuffed brown loafers following her down the antiseptic scented hallway.

By the time we finished the second graders, my voice had become calmer, steadier. I was almost robotic,  determined to survive.

I didn’t reach the fifth grade until well past my snack time, and my stomach rumbled as a boy shot spit balls at me through a straw, and the girls tossed their long hair on the desk, like shiny rugs. I ignored the preening and eye rolling. A pro by now, I cleared my throat, introduced myself, and read my poem.

The woods are quiet at night,

Except for one mouse, who scurries under the dry leaves . ..

If I closed my eyes I could be there, my favorite spot where the grass gave way to tall oak trees, where the scent of raspberries drifted in the summer time, and the moon fell upon the path like a silver lantern. My bare feet found their way across the wet grass, to the moist path, to peace.

My poem didn’t do it justice, I thought. I couldn’t find the right words to tell the world about my magical place.  I considered better vocabulary, as I followed my guide back to my classroom, words that might evoke the beauty these woods at night deserved: illumination, crackle, pine boughs. I forgot my mortification as I planned the next poem.

A moist earthy walk, amongst the towering pines? The piercing gaze of a moon lit owl?  I wondered if I might try my hand at alliteration.

I was a reluctant, redeemed, and reverent writer.

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