It was Christmas time in 2011, and my mother had died of Alzheimer's only two months before. The heart knows what it needs, doesn't it? I went back to a place alive with mystery, a riot of color and fragrance, and the wonder and magic of childhood that never really dies...
A few of the glorious flowers at Phipps...
An orchid orchard...
The secret path that was not so secret...no matter how many times I walked through this little underground passageway, I never tired of exploring every inch of it.
The Christmas displays were always dramatic and lush...see the poinsettias peeking out from behind the cactus below?
Walls for the wind
and a roof for the rain
and drinks beside the fire
laughter to cheer you
and those you love near you
and all that your heart may desire...
At Medicine Horse Program, the Hope Foal program paired up these babies taken from their mothers too young to have much in the way of manners, with young girls who had suffered abuse. The girls helped the foals learn to trust humans and work with them, the foals helped the girls heal and find inner strength and confidence. Adults, of course, had to work with the foals as well, to make sure the girls would be able to safely approach them.
On the tour, we visited the foal barn. I took one look at Chandler and knew I wanted to work with him. I can't tell you what it was, I just felt an energy from him that told me we were meant to work together. So I talked with the volunteer coordinator about doing that and some other work. There was a little bit of a problem with Chandler, though. He had a tendency to try to kick people. He wasn't exactly afraid, though he was a bit on the wild side. It's just he had a mind of his own and didn't want to be pushed around.
I was told to stay outside of his run until Kathy, who ran MHP, had worked with me and felt safe letting me go in alone. So I swept out the foal barn, helped feed the foals, and talked to Chandler all the time, so he'd get used to my voice and presence. I brought a chair over outside his run and sat there reading a couple of times. He'd skitter to the end of the run and look to see if I'd noticed. When I didn't react, he eventually came back and ate his hay, one eye on me the whole time.
Kathy did spend some time working with both Chandler and me, and after about a month, she gave me the okay to go in on my own. I didn't do much, that first time. I stood inside the gate, near his feed trough, and put a few broken up horse cubes on his hay.
Week by week, he got more and more comfortable with me. He would follow me as I walked to get the horse cubes, let me lead him by the halter, and always, when he got tired of being good, he'd shift that rear end around and I'd say, "Chandler, what's up, buddy?" His curiosity and interest in what I was saying ensured that he never lifted a hoof against me.
One day I brought a bucket into the middle of his run, sat down on it, and did nothing. He was eating hay at the time. I heard his hay chomping slow, then stop. My back was to him, but I could feel him looking at me, as if wondering, what is she doing now? The crunch of his hooves slowly made their way toward me. He walked around in front of me and looked. I sat there, looking back, smiling. He nosed my pockets, looking for horse cubes, but I didn't have any. I just wanted to be there with the two of us, no food, no expectation, just us.
He circled me once, nosing me every so often to see if any horse cubes might be hiding. Because the bucket was lower than his feed trough, my head was lower than his. He must have thought my hair looked like hay, because he tried to chew it. He didn't like it. Finally he stopped trying to figure it out, and he plopped down in the dust of his run and rolled around to scratch his back.
From that day on, Chandler followed me around like a dog. He still had a mind of his own, but I was able to take him to another pen where many of the older horses went for exercise and training. I'd pull grass for him that he couldn't reach himself and feed it to him. Eventually, the time came for him to move on. The Hope Foals stayed for one year, then they had to find new homes so the next crew could come in.
I started telling him about his upcoming trip to Wyoming, how much fun it would be, all the grass he'd get to eat. And I told him about the trailer, described to him how it worked, how the ramp wouldn't hurt him, and it would be noise and bumpy, but it would take him to this great place.
We had about ten days before he left, and I came out three times to be with him and tell him about the trailer. They say horses are telepathic, and that much of their communication is in mental pictures, so I talked and at the same time created mental pictures of what I was talking about. Who knew if it would work, but I knew it couldn't hurt.
He always watched me leave, and that last time was tough. But it was so worth it, when Kathy told me with surprise that he'd handled the trailer like a pro. Chandler was safely in Wyoming, and a few years later I saw some video of him being ridden. He was good as gold, and clearly happy in the life that could have ended so differently.
We never know when or how we will fall in love, or with whom. We never know when a teacher will show up and open our eyes to a whole new world. We never know.
Another caveat: I began my work-in-progress in the fall of 2011, when my mother was dying of Alzheimer’s. Overall I’ve written way more than 327 pages, changed protagonists, tried multiple viewpoints to avoid losing my original protagonist (didn’t work), and gone from first person to third and back again.
I don’t consider the time wasted – I’d been away from writing fiction for more than ten years as of 2011, while I immersed myself in the monastic life. It took a long time to feel my way back in, and even longer to find the story I wanted to tell.
Enter Lisa’s first book, Wired for Story, her “Story Genesis” handout from her website, and a day-long workshop with her in San Jose last year. Mix in a twenty-minute session with Donald Maass in which he flew through twenty-some pages (not enough conflict to slow him down – very depressing), but the one-page scene written with one of his exercises made his eyebrow go up and say, “I’ve not read that before,” (I was elated). After four years of meandering, my book started to take focus. It was turned upside down and inside out through my encounters with both Lisa and Don, and I learned more and more with every word I wrote.
Turns out, that’s been very helpful for me. I’ve seen how Jennie worked her way through certain things, how she looked at a number of choices, and then how she made her decisions (with Lisa’s commentary, explaining why those choices were the best ones given the story being told). It encouraged me to explore a little further than I might have otherwise. Instead of grabbing the first idea that seemed to work, I looked at more options and played around with them. In a sense, seeing Jennie’s process gave me permission to take my time with my own process, which led to some unexpected revelations.
After 36 hours of more or less uninterrupted reading, writing, and walking/ruminating with Story Genius, I can report that I’m more than halfway through Lisa’s book. More important, my blueprint is well underway, my overarching story problem is clearer to me than it’s ever been, meaning that my opening scene and ending resonate with a connection they didn’t have before.
Hearst Castle is breathtaking as it towers above San Simeon (both town and bay) below. It is an astonishing collection of architecture (with architectural elements brought from churches and castles in other countries), exotic gardens, statuary, and panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean.
Asilomar blends into the landscape, constructed of native redwoods and other indigenous woods, sprawling over several acres, with intermittent views of Monterey Bay through the trees. What makes them both irresistible to me, is the atmosphere of welcome in the architecture and design of Julia Morgan. Somehow, in these two disparate places, this gifted woman brought together elements that created a synergy that makes you feel at home the moment you walk in.
The first time I went to Hearst Castle I was prepared to be sickened by its opulence and decadence. Instead, I found myself moved almost to tears by the way everything worked together to create a sense of ease and well-being. It was a shock to discover that the Assembly Room, an enormous living space of approximately 90’ x 40,’ felt as if it invited me to sit down and hang out. Huge as it was, there were areas for conversation, cards, jigsaw puzzles, throughout the room. Everyone would be together in the oversized living room, and the design gave a sense of intimacy that seemed logically impossible, yet undeniable.
Asilomar’s Social Hall is anchored by a stone fireplace, with rocks brought in from the property outside, and designed to draw the eye up with the flames, to the vertical rocks lining the space above, and on up to the ceiling. The walls are lined with glass windows, bringing the natural beauty of the Monterey Peninsula indoors. And the room is filled with comfortable tables and chairs, window seats, rockers in front of the fire, a grand piano, and a pair of pool tables near a cabinet with games. Because it is a state park, it is open to the public, and I’m not the only person who spends many a Saturday morning with my coffee and notebook in front of the fire.
For a number of years, I was fortunate enough to live in a Julia Morgan-designed building at 300 Page Street in San Francisco – the City Center of San Francisco Zen Center. One of my favorite memories of my time there was Sunday morning, when I’d take my bagel, orange juice, and coffee outside into the courtyard and sit in one of Julia Morgan’s most welcoming spaces, an oasis in the midst of the bustling city.
Originally built as Emmanuel House, a residence for young Jewish immigrant women, 300 Page Street retains much of the warmth of her original design. Built on bedrock only a few years after the 1906 earthquake, the building has withstood even the Loma Prieta quake with only a few cracks in the courtyard and some broken dishes.
Julia Morgan inspires me in many ways. She was the first woman to be accepted in the L’Ecole de Beaux-Artes, one of the world’s best schools for architecture. She designed and built literally hundreds of buildings throughout the state of California, many of which are still standing today. She collaborated with William Randolph Hearst on what was for both of them the project of a lifetime, and did it while she continued her work on many other projects.
If you take the kitchen tour at Hearst Castle you come out the back door and into the rear courtyard of the main building. There is what appears to be a wooden shack tacked on to the back of the building, and it is not included on any of the tours. It is Julia Morgan’s office. You can see her drawing table and stool, the upholstered armchair where Hearst must have sat often to discuss plans for the buildings, and perhaps most poignantly, the hat rack with her hat on it.
My political choices aren’t determined by a party and they never have been. They’re determined by the individuals and how I come to understand them. There was a man who came to my front door years ago with his mother. He was running for the Senate against an incumbent he was certain I wouldn’t like, and he wanted to make sure of my vote. I had a fenced-in front yard and a dog named Cassidy who was very friendly and very large. The man climbed the few steps up onto my porch to speak to me and ignored the fact that he left his mother at the foot of the steps, in perfect position for Cassidy to try to kiss her.
I kept trying to get Cassidy to leave the woman alone, and her son kept telling me she was all right. He kept urging me to agree we should vote the incumbent out, because the incumbent was from one party and we were from the other. Finally, I got Cassidy’s collar and told the man I would never vote for him. He looked shocked and asked why.
“I would never vote for a man who treats his mother the way you’ve treated yours. You let my dog jump all over her and said she was fine. If that’s how you treat your mother, how will you treat your constituents?”
He left. I like to think his mother gave him hell after they turned the corner. And no, I didn’t vote for him, and he did lose.
Last week a friend told me about the imminent death of a parent, and since then memories have bubbled to the surface about my mother’s journey through Alzheimer’s and her eventual death almost five years ago.
On this particular trip, it had been a year since I’d visited. When I arrived in Pittsburgh, it was to find a mother that was all smiles and delight at seeing me. I waited for the proverbial other shoe to drop, only it never did. Instead she laughed at all of my dad’s jokes, told me how wonderful he was, smiled all the time, and was more overtly happy than I’d ever seen her in my life.
It was one of the many ironies of Alzheimer’s, that for a brief time my mother forgot her disappointed expectations and was happy with her daughter (me) and everything around her. I remember that uncomplicated joy that emanated from her, and feel grateful she and my dad had that respite before the illness took over.
When I was in law school I did a research paper on non-profit theatre corporations. It was a great excuse to visit three Shakespeare festivals and talk to lots of actors, directors and staff. As part of the structure of the paper I compared the three Shakespeare festivals and then came up with my own ideal version of a theatre.
The conclusion of the paper surprised me at first. After examining the history of each theatre, their similarities and differences, and interviewing numerous participants about the power structure and the issues of business vs. art it was simple: what mattered most was the people. Regardless of how the various parties were organized or what the financial bottom line was, in the end, magic or disaster was created by the individuals who made up the company, their chemistry, their working relationships.
When I watch a TV show or a movie, I’m watching performances, listening to a writer, seeing the layers of complexity a great director weaves together. Friends and family are often astonished that I can remember Brian Bedford played Frank Converse’s sidekick on several episodes of the short-lived summer replacement series Coronet Blue in the late 60’s.
Or with horse racing, that I still remember Secretariat’s record time in the Kentucky Derby or the names of the four horses with which D. Wayne Lukas won six consecutive Triple Crown races (a feat never equaled before or since by any trainer – Tabasco Cat, 1994 Preakness and Belmont; Thunder Gulch, 1995 Kentucky Derby and Belmont; Timber Country, 1995 Preakness; Grindstone, 1996 Kentucky Derby), the horse (Louis Quatorze, 1996 Preakness, trained by Nick Zito) that broke that string of victories, and the D.Wayne Lukas horse that won the Triple Crown race right after that one (Editor’s Note, 1996 Belmont), giving him seven of eight Triple Crown races in that three year period.
Okay, with horse racing I remember horses as much as people. But the sport wouldn’t exist without the people. It’s why I read. It’s why I write. It’s why I get out of bed every day. I care about people. Their stories, their lives, and my connection with them.
What's influencing you and/or your work-in-progress this week?
Carol (Doc) Dougherty
An avid reader, writer, and student, with a penchant for horse racing, Shakespeare, and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
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