Monday, September 28, 2009

Dry Lay

He's unloading huge, rounded river stones from the back of his truck. I ask what he's making. The mason, currently of Fort Bragg, California, lately of San Diego and before that a lifetime pitched in Park City, Utah, where he lay rock, mounded fireplaces and bricked walks for the rich and famous, is building a retaining wall for a bright, white cottage in Mendocino.

He puts his fingers to his lips; there's a writer inside the house, he explains to me, so we have to keep it low.

"Do you like this kind of work?" I whisper. "It looks . . . heavy."

"Like doesn't come into it. I tell you what, if you want to raise two daughters, you have to work hard, and that's it."

His passion, really, he confides in that low voice, is carving basins and sinks out of pure red stone. He reaches into the front seat of his pick-up and pulls out a binder full of pictures to show me. The smooth, heavy bowls gleam like coral under their cheap overlay of photo plastic. Meanwhile, the Pacific roars and carves all around us.

Except he doesn't have time for such vessels right now, he tells me; right now most of the time he does whatever he can, in this economy.

"It's beautiful work, though."

"Want to see where I'm building the wall?"

We creep to the back of the house, me glancing up at the lace-curtained windows, curious.

Alice Walker?

Then I see the wall.

"What's holding the stones together?"

The river rock, holding back a bed of fresh garden soil, seems to me to be floating, disconnected.

"It's called a dry lay," he says patiently; that's a process in which very little mortar is used, and then most of what little is used gets scraped away--to make it look, from a distance, as if nothing is holding the stones together at all.

"You're almost done?" I ask, feeling the gapped surface.

"No. She's got some other things she wants me to do around here. Fixing other people's shoddy work." He points to the cracked flag of a back stoop.

"You're working pretty constantly?"

"Seven days a week. Need to get this done 'cause I have other jobs waiting."

"And how are your daughters?"

"Just graduated and out of the house."

"You must be proud. Of yourself, I mean."

He shrugs, as if to say, you only do what's expected, and asks me what I'm doing, wandering around the village, so early.


Photo credit: Bruce Barone

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


"My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see. That--and no more, and it is everything."

--Joseph Conrad

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

To Make Time

I have a friend--I'll call her Jennie--who was diagnosed eight months ago with breast cancer. I learned this very recently. Jennie and I are friends whose worlds overlap only along a very particular seam: we meet and see each other thanks to our dogs, who compete in canine agility.

In the sport of agility, dog and handler are required to navigate a complicated obstacle course with the goal of finishing cleanly; the object isn't so much to come in first or second or third, as it is to get through without crashing into a jump or hurtling into the wrong tunnel. When I didn't see Jennie and her beautiful Belgian Shepherds during the spring and summer this year, I didn't think too much of it. One of her dogs was older, I knew, and needed more care than usual, and my travel had taken me far away from our regular stomping grounds.

In southern Colorado I finally caught up with Jennie again: she's a tiny woman with flowing salt-and-pepper hair, and when she competes alongside one of her majestic dogs it's like watching a sprite racing a Lipizaner. She'd just completed a difficult run when another friend came up to me and commented that what Jennie was doing was absolutely remarkable, considering what she was going through. I was stunned. I had no chance to talk with Jennie privately that day. But the next she arrived at the field wearing a black t-shirt with two big, embossed pink boxing gloves dangling from a coiled pink ribbon. I hurried toward her.

I apologized for not understanding why I hadn't seen her in so many months, and she told me it was all right, she'd kept very quiet about it in the beginning. At first, feeling a persistent pain in her right shoulder, she'd thought it was only a bruise where one of her dogs had jumped joyously up on her. But when the ache didn't go away she'd had it looked at. By then the cancer had metastasized to her bones and liver.

The doctors in Colorado gave her a choice: pursue a fast, radical course of treatment that would help her but make her very ill; or a less intense, more methodical one, that would proceed slowly but could still yield positive results. She chose the second route. It allowed her to keep working, she said, and to keep her hair. Now, after many months, the cancer had receded from her liver and her bones, and only remained in the breast, where it had started. Her prognosis was cautiously optimistic.

"That's wonderful," I breathed out. "But . . . you're so brave. I would have gone for the quick approach. I would have been too terrified to do anything else."

"I was terrified," she said quietly. "But I just wanted to do what felt right for me. I wanted to keep feeling healthy. I wanted to feel and look like me."

"And you're feeling okay now?"

"Pretty good. This is my first time back doing agility. I asked my doctor if I could, and she said go for it. So here I am." She told me she was getting a little winded on course, because the cancer affected her lungs and breathing--but that otherwise the weekend was going fairly well.

We had to part because it was Jennie's turn to run her dog again. I watched her take him through the unfamiliar obstacle course, and noticed her loyal companion was slower than usual. I wondered if it was because he sensed something was different, and was holding back.

"Now, whatcha doin, boy? Come on, come, come on, let's go go go go go!" she urged him. Running.

They crossed the finish line--a good, clean run, but not speedy. I couldn't tell from where I was standing if the judge had said they had "made time"--the term for completing a course within a required number of seconds. If you don't "make time," it doesn't matter how flawless your run is. It doesn't count.

I found myself running toward the scoring area.

"Did you? Did you?" I called out.

"We'll have to see," she waved back. "It's gonna be close."

A few minutes later I saw her at the scoring table. Smiling.


Photo credit: Bruce Barone

Monday, September 21, 2009

Join me on Twitter . . .

. . . for updates from the road and from my current lecture/workshop season: (for writing-related tips, stories and links)

(for widely ranging inspirational links, tips and stories from "The Art of Inspiration" tour)

And off we go!


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ron Walks

Ron Wach has been hiking almost constantly for fifteen years--ever since he endured his third car accident while commuting to his job with a large pharmaceutical company in a big city. On that day, he was sitting still, stopped by traffic, when he was hit at 65mph by another car.

"That was it," he told me, leaning on his two titanium hiking poles on the Broken Arrow Trail of Northern Arizona. "I took that as a sign. I quit."

We were talking on a dusty piece of red rock, shaded by knotted and crossed junipers. I was on my way back to the trailhead, and had just left a large party of hikers I'd bumped into on the bluff above us--a group of white-haired, sun-loving retirees from downstate, women and men who'd munched on peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and noisily urged me to buy a house in Southern Arizona just as soon as I was lucky enough to be fifty-five. They'd been as rowdy and lively as Ron was careful and still.

He tended to hike alone, for the most part, he told me. He'd taken a basic survival-skills course so that he would be safer doing so, and in his fifteen years of trekking had hiked in two hemispheres, from Canada to South America. He had to use two hiking poles because his balance wasn't quite what it had been before the accident.

He seemed thoughtful, and a bit lonely to me; eager to talk and yet shy. His face was clear and soft, his curled hair colored a light brown. It was hard for me to tell how old he might have been: whether he was a subdued man in his early fifties, or a spry one in his sixties.

Since he seemed a bit lonely, I pointed up the hill, to where the senior citizens were camped off-trail for lunch, and told him what a friendly, happy lot they were. When I left him, Ron was still standing under the crossroads of juniper, hesitant. In a moment I'd rounded the bend and he was out of my sight. I didn't see whether he'd headed up the hill toward the Sun City crowd, or had turned and followed the trail down to the solitude of Chicken Point.


Photo credit, Bruce Barone: "When I went to NYC/Hoboken . . . I stopped in Fort Lee to photograph the George Washington Bridge; I had a moment of sadness as my Dad, who passed away a few brief years ago, lived a few blocks from the bridge. It was at that moment I realized I was wearing his shirt and tie, and I had last stood here with him by my side." --BB

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

News from the Road

Dear Friends,

I hope your fall has begun on a cool and fresh note. My thanks, as always, for allowing me into your lives as I share some news from the road. A few delightful things are at hand:

For those of you who have been asking when my next extended writing course will be offered, New Plains Press is sponsoring my workshop, "Creative Living, Creative Writing," in beautiful Taormina, Sicily, June 6 -19, 2010. New Plains' in-depth Writers Retreat promises to be a truly remarkable immersion experience, offering classes and workshops in both fiction and poetry; lectures on Sicilian writing and literature; boat and city tours; and optional offerings including language classes at the renowned Babilonia Language Institute as well as lessons in Sicilian cooking and cuisine. We'll be based in a beautiful, comfortable hotel perched in this lovely island town; in our free time we may sample the screenings at the prestigious Taormina International Film Festival. Now: if you find yourself unable to resist all of this any more than I've been able to, I hope you'll visit

to register. I have the feeling I can look forward to seeing some of you there.

And for those who have been inquiring after my 2009-2010 speaking tour, "The Art of Inspiration," I'm so pleased to share with you that it launches early next month. For a detailed appearance schedule, or to make a booking, please visit I'm looking forward to sharing this beautiful, interactive talk (which uses story, sense, movement and sound to harness our creative energies, both as individuals and as communities) with a wide range of audiences.

Again, my thanks for your support, your interest, your wonderful friendship and fanship. These are dear to me.

Dr. Em

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Life Touch

"I had a terrible mother," the woman sitting across from me in the Pep Boys waiting room said.

Her own daughters, one eight years old and the other thirteen, clung close to her side. The girls were dark-skinned, small and beautiful. The woman was large and blond, with poodle-thick-curling hair and a quick smile.

We both--this friendly woman and I--had blown-out tires, that afternoon. The Pep Boys waiting room in Fort Worth was our refuge: cool, unexpectedly clean, and with a TV remote resting on the table between us so that we could turn the volume down on the set bulking over our heads. The elder girl turned it very slightly up again.

I asked what it was like raising two children these days, and my companion admitted it was difficult; her elder daughter, especially, didn't like school, and so was required to read books in order to score points to earn her cell-phone minutes.

"I don't see why," the elder girl pushed the buttons on the remote. "I already do chores around the house."

"Which pays for your rent and meals," her mother said simply.

"She doesn't want to give me any privacy," the girl grumbled.

I had the feeling I was hearing a conversation that had wheeled around the block a few times.

"When you sign a lease, you can have privacy," her mother explained. "Until then you are in my care."

That was when I had asked where she had developed such sturdy parenting skills, and she'd told me about her "terrible," drug-addled mother.

"She had me when she was fourteen. She didn't even try to take care of me. So I lived with my grandmother until I turned ten. Then all of a sudden I was sent back to live with her. It was horrible. I left when I was sixteen. I got a job at Jack In The Box, found a cheap studio apartment, paid my own rent, and got my high school diploma. I never went to college but I learned at work how to keep the books--I'm just good with numbers--so then I went to work doing finance for grocery stores. Like Albertson's."

"Is that what you do now?"

"No, I work for a company called Life Touch. It's a photography service for churches and schools and graduations and so on. I'm their head finance person. I like it. I like what I do."

I looked at her girls. "And their father?"

"We're divorced. We have a good relationship, though. He just doesn't speak English. He's Mexican. I tried to help him, to help him get ahead, but he just wouldn't help himself. So. Both of my girls are bilingual, anyway. Me too. I took classes and taught myself."

I asked her then if she still had contact with her mother, and if her mother knew her granddaughters, and how they were doing.

She shook her head, and for the first time looked down at the Pep Boys' blazing white linoleum, and left her gaze there. "I don't want them to see her. I got tired of trying to explain to them why she was always drunk or high and had a different man with her every time. So last time I told her, 'That's it, you've ruined your last Christmas, I am not having you in my house anymore.'"

"That had to be hard."

"It was." She looked up. "But I'm determined to live my life differently than she did, and that my girls will too. Now this one," she touched and stroked the dark hair of the younger one beside her, "loves to read."

"I love it that you love to read," I said.

The girl ducked her head shyly into the sturdy arm beside her.

"She reads because she wants to," her mother said. "Isn't that something?"


Photo credit: A Friend in Nonotuck Park, Bruce Barone

Thursday, September 10, 2009


"At present, I am aware, an audience impatient for blood and glory scorns the stress I am putting upon incidents so minute . . . One will come to whom it will be given to see the elementary machinery at work; who, as it were, from some slight hint of the straws, will feel the winds of March when they do not blow. To them nothing will be trivial . . . They will see the links of things as they pass, and wonder not, as foolish people do now, that this great matter came out of that small one." --George Meredith

Photo credit: Bruce Barone

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


I love duck ponds. The colors flashing on the birds' backs. The way the water divides alongside their carved bodies, with little resistance. I had a chance one afternoon to sit with Gayle and enjoy his reed-fringed pond in Southeastern Utah, and watch the wild mallard, the teal and the wood ducks gliding by. Gayle and his wife, Charlie--no, I'm not making this up, every story I tell on this blog is absolutely true--together have lived in the tiny hamlet of Bluff for some seventeen years, their property stretching from the edge of the lone highway through town to near the sifting banks of the San Juan River. Three hundred-and-fifty people live in town with them--that is if everybody shows up all at once. I'd just been to Cemetery Hill, and it was filled with Mormons, Native Americans, many young children, and the Tibetan-flag-festooned graves of pot-smoking hippies, as Gayle explained them to me. Living in Bluff was still like that, he said, except that the dead got along much better.

"Were you born in this part of the country?" I asked from my lovely rocking chair on his porch.

With the gently lined face of a man who's spent most of his life under the bill of a cap, Gayle told me he'd grown up in an isolated part of Colorado, many miles from where we were sitting now. To give me a sense of how private and remote his family once was, he explained to me that his clearest memory from childhood was of his mother loudly berating his father:

Husband, this going into town once a month has got to stop.

Gayle left as soon as he could, joined the Navy to see the world, then came back to the States and went into the construction business (he still owns his own construction company) and jobs that took him from Montana all the way to New Orleans. Where, he told me proudly, he built a bridge across the Mississippi River.

I asked him if it had survived Hurricane Katrina.

"You better know it."

"Good work," I said.

We rocked in our lovely chairs.

After decades of being on the move, Gayle got sick of traveling and just wanted to be still somewhere. But like his mother he ended up marrying someone who didn't want to be still. As he said this he pointed out a pheasant skulking near the edge of the pond. The ducks were out of sight now, somewhere behind a small, reedy island.

"Do you know, I used to crawl on my stomach for a quarter mile just to shoot a bird?"

He met his wife Charlie when they were both going through painful and difficult divorces. One evening, soon after they were married, Charlie had been sitting right here on the porch, watching the pond at sunset, when an old coyote had come limping out from the brush for a cool drink of water. Just as he'd bent to the surface of the pond and started lapping, he unintentionally scared up one of its wild bass, which leapt high enough for him to catch it--reflex!--between his jaws. Then Charlie had watched as the coyote loped away with flesh dangling from either side of its mouth.

"Sometimes, the good thing isn't where you expect it," Gayle said. His pond lay calm and still in front of us.


Photo credit: Bruce Barone

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Move Yourself. Move Others.

Cross-pollination/news from my website:

"This fall, Dr. Em continues her longstanding tradition of reaching out beyond the pages of her books to create inspiring, memorable, moving events that challenge her listeners to claim their own stories, light the fire of their own imaginations, and reach for their highest aspirations."

"I speak on a wide range of subjects and meet audiences wherever and however they live, work, breathe and dream, yet two ideas are always central: I believe that as individuals, communities and business partners we must continually find ways to connect powerfully and imaginatively to each other… and that we will only inspire those around us when we have charged our own minds, hearts, voices, and our reaching, physical selves, with hope and courage."
—Mylène Dressler

Talks and workshops for Fall 2009/Winter 2010:

“The Art of Inspiration in Challenging Times” (for all audiences)

Join Dr. Em for her new series of lectures and seminars confronting the reality of the times we’re living in now. Learn what fresh steps can be taken to awaken our creative spirits and re-energize our passion for success. An interactive event that invites its listeners to explore memory, story, sense and sound as a means of sparking, within each of us, "a fiery laboratory of inspiration."

“A Dance With Language” (for all audiences)

"I was once a dancer told she should only dance; a professor told she should only teach; a writer and artist told I had no business with business. I listened to none of it. I empowered my own voice and drew on the many powerful stories and voices that danced around me. Now I help others do the same." Join in this series of events that explores the role of language in our lives and shares the intimate tools writers and artists use to move individuals and create vibrant, shared communities. An evening of imaginative narrative performance "wrapped in language that is crystalline in its clarity."
The Denver Post

"Many students and colleagues told me that her event was the best they had ever attended—and this in a highly successful reading series that typically brings six or seven speakers a year. Intensely engaging and intimate… she has flair and a certain glamour, and weaves her reflections in a flowing and organic dialogue with the public. Captivating."
Dr. Shannan Mattiace, Professor, Allegheny College, Pennsylvania

"Extraordinary… She has an innate ability to reach out and challenge you to think from a different place and consider a fresh perspective."
Cynthia Fodell Mott, Marketing Director, The Houston Club; former Director of Marketing and Business Development, RE/MAX of Texas.

"I connected immediately with her, and left feeling energized, motivated and excited. She is a unique and energizing human being… a speaker who possesses grace, clarity, and offers genuine and effective advice."
Lauren Rosen, filmmaker, The Carson McCullers Film Festival, Georgia

For bookings and further information:

Photo credit: Bruce Barone