The Making of a Documentary Film

Let’s film you

In the fall of 2021, Dillon Hayes of All I Have, LLC, emailed my husband to see if he would be open to participating in a documentary. The prospect sounded exciting. I joined the conversation when Hayes expressed a desire to not only film my husband at work but the entire family, our journey to this point and something of our life at home.

Years have passed since I spilled the ink on our interior lives, even though the book was only published last year, so the idea of butterflying our hearts for the public nudged me out of my comfort zone. To support my husband I said “yes,” but with some reservations.

We declined the first suggested weekend and Hayes postponed the second. Finally, the time came for the last weekend in January when Hayes, his co-director Julia Grimm and sound technician Rill Causey would descend upon our little nest with their cameras and microphones.

First a quick edit

As the weekend approached, we cleaned and “edited” the home clearing this and that while maintaining my vintage maximalist design aesthetic. My daughter asked, “but if we do the hard cleaning now, they won’t really see our real lives.”

“Our lives aren’t just cleaning, no more than my mothering is just yelling or your childhood is just rule-breaking. By doing some of the hardworking now, we make space to show a fuller picture of who we are,” I explained.

The film crew arrives

At 7:30 a.m. the crew of three arrived. They set up and got down to business as we finished our breakfast. Day 1 focused on the family, homeschooling, playtime, and formal interviews with me in the afternoon. It felt so strange to be on display, acutely aware of the camera watching, creeping closer and closer. My mind reached to perceive what we look like through that camera lens.

“We look very strange.”

That was the only impression I felt within myself as the children recited antique catechism questions, poetry, and I read scripture and took the answers to endless math problems, and one flower order.

They ate when we ate. My husband and I spoke to each other in quiet tones, even as we were alone in the house.

The children behaved remarkably well, with little to no resistance at school. They and I were on the same page after the lunch break, both eager for the weekend to begin, unable to focus.

The formal interviews spotlights an insight to myself

That afternoon, during the formal interviews in my bedroom surrounded by antiques handed on to me by my grandmother. There, I answered questions about our history, our children, our losses, emotions and the will. I continue to be struck by the tenor of the conversation.

We have lived with a sense of adventure in our lives that comes from knowing that so little is guaranteed. We must dig deep into the present moment while we have it. It’s the feeling of throwing everything into a holiday when I had no idea if we would be in a home or a hospital. While we’re here, we’re going for it. That was my feeling, going for it to the fullest. I realized through these interviews how foundational this sense has become in our lives and how exciting life feels because of it.

Openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism make up the old five-factor theory of personality.

My husband and I differ exceedingly on the last four factors. But the first, openness to experience, is a strong point of agreement for us. To a fault, perhaps, but also to a great deal of joy. The degree to which we practice this comes from the grief, despair, and fear we faced. Our days are not guaranteed, so we make the most of them as they come to us.

In those interviews, we also spoke about fear: the fear of commitment or responsibility, the fear of taking a chance, and the fear of those terrifyingly dark emotions.

And about those dark emotions

I finished reading Healing Through Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear and Despair by Miriam Greenspan. The last chapters resonated less with me than the first. Most of the book was revelatory in a way I’ve never experienced before. Greenspan explained the emotional alchemy possible when we allow ourselves to pay attention to the emotions that move within us, consider what they are telling us, and express them in a healthy way. It is only through numbing them or avoiding them that they change into something toxic, she argues.

When addressed and expressed, what do the emotions change into?

  • From grief to gratitude.
  • From despair to faith.
  • From fear to joy.

Check. Check. Check.

At the end of the evening, the cameras went down and I relaxed. The crew and I sat around the living room with the children, untangling marionette puppets and exchanging ideas.

And what was just Day 1.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Love the home you have / Barn Edition

The sun is shining.

The air is warming.

I have my first flower order of the year.

And we are facing facts about the structures on our property.

I step out the back door. The deck is new, composite wood with a reddish hue. A wooden gazebo with a black metal roof rises from it. Its wood has a yellowish hue, like an ill-patient. The ramshackle fence behind it leans more towards the gazebo day by day. In time, its elevated pitch that made way to accommodate the roots of the 60-year-old mulberry tree will sag, or the entire thing will fall over, as its comrade did in the last storms.

I ordered two climbing roses in a peachy tinge called “Polka” from Menagerie Farm and Flower. “She is the whole package and we can’t recommend her enough,” the website says.

I hope this is the case. I’ll plant each in front of the fence we intend to rebuild and train them upwards on the new fence that will be there in no time, up and up, until it  frames the gazebo. It’s a good plan and I hope it works.

When the buildings overwhelm me, I plant sage and rosemary.

I plug two basil plants into our covered garden area, an area where no rain reaches but in summer the sun will beat down mercilessly. All sun and no water, the worst of both worlds for a home garden.

My finger is wrapped in a bandaid from this morning, reminding me of the quick cleaning and hauling that took place in the morning that interrupted school hours. We moved one shop to another building and scooted the rest over. My furniture is falling apart after the cold and wetness of this wild winter. The wood is saturated still. The edges of the uneven cement that line the floor are covered in damp dust where the torn metal roofing leaked. Of course, the furniture is ruined.

I realize now that my parents stored furniture in their barn only after my father and his neighbor-friend built an interior box with heating to house it.

We’re living and learning here on the farm. In a small town, that means that we’re a bit on display for others to see. Many will drive this road, comment on us cutting down our tree or ask what we’ll do with those stumps we left out. We aren’t alone here in Hughson, and that’s okay. I take my daughter to get her haircut and schedule lessons or a  piano tuning with someone who is in the salon at the same time. We go to the consignment-antique store where I update the clerk who asks about the projects she has seen me stock from their store.

Our barn cannot be more than a barn.

It can’t quite be a barn because of the cement and it can’t quite be an event space because of everything else. Maybe I can stop placing my expectations on it and start discovering what it can be, just based on the qualities it presents.

It looks awfully nice in the section that is my husband’s new workshop and the shelves he hung today.

Maybe that is the future of the barn. Maybe that is what the last owners had in mind the whole time.

The building next door is the same. It works just fine, albeit with an immense amount of clutter and empty plastic pots from Home Depot’s garden center.

My garage fills up and empties. A one-day event like Vintage at the Yard may help me tidy it a bit. Some antiques I’m attached to. Some I hold onto for one day. Others could move to a better home as we’ve outgrown their use.

On days like today, I feel like we’re getting a better sense of the place.

We put away clutter and hope it stays clean, but I know the moment is temporary. The bikes are parked now, but will soon be scattered about. The ribbons and yarn and handmade ornaments are swept up, but they’ll return again. It is inevitable – the signs of life in a house full of life, a property full of life and potential.

Rather than try to impose my will, my daydreams or my Instagram feed, I’ll pause. I’ll do the best I can to care for the exterior of the place, and see what it has in store, what its blueprint indicates, like we try to do for those who live within its walls.

In Person Communication

We’ve sunk into the beauty of Christmas Vacation.

The bar is stocked, Christmas lights are hung, the living room is regularly vacuumed and our fridge and pantry are bursting with party treats. First, we began with cocktails with a friend from high school.

The seasons of friendship do change and it takes years to discover what lies in store. At one time, I thought this friendship passed, we had seen too much, said too much, and then came the day when it seemed no longer worth it to hold on to or think too deeply about those moments. This friendship is more. So she came. Two drinks and four hours later, our goodbyes were only motivated by the rolling fog and lateness of the hour. Yet the conversation might have gone on.

Other plans dot the calendar.

A set of friends we’ve not seen in 2022. The husband was my husband’s groomsman at our wedding. A lot of life has happened over those years and these annual visits are all they and we can spare.

A themed party at another family’s house. I broke out of the vintage furs and we played an overly dramatic rendition of “O Holy Night” showing it is possible to be totally free with others outside our immediate family.

Yesterday there was a Nutcracker tea party, not for myself, but for my daughters and their friends. Tea sandwiches, cookies and chocolate on tiered servers and eight tea options, with boiling water decanted into a blue Danube coffee pot. They helped themselves pouring into Noritake china tea cups, sitting around the coffee table as Tchaikovsky’s music delighted them.

Coffee this morning with a friend from my working-outside-the-house days. We’ll talk Shakespeare and education and maybe a little about child development now that we both have children developing. My husband will play “baristo” with our drink orders and then take the boys to play video games so we can minimize interruptions.

New friends and old.

Emerging seasons overlap that which has matured and aged. Our children grow and enter into the landscape. Interests and occupations likewise evolve.

But for once, I am not reflecting too much, just simply delighting in this idea of savoring the moment and interaction before me, storing up these treasures. Christmas can be the impetus to get us to reach out and make the invitation.

But what we do after that matters.

A thought might come to mind, so I text a friend who lives in Waterford.

I see a quirky antique, snap a photo and send it over to Instagram to a friend in Indiana.

On a walk, I leave a long voicemail through Telegram to a friend in South Korea.

It’s instant communication, the kind my Chinese grandmother would never have dreamed of being able to use to connect with her cousins. Yet, it is just one kind of communication. It has its place, its blessings and its curses.

There are other kinds as well.

There is the conversation between two moms, regularly scanning the room to see where their toddlers are, getting up, continuing the topic, or sitting back down and losing it entirely.

There is the intellectual discussion on literature, digging in, uncovering themes, then sitting back in satisfaction as the discovery of ideas reached its peak.

There is the intimate sharing of life experiences, with tears welling up from time to time. Maybe the talk stops altogether as one friend opens her heart enough to cry the tears she stored up alone.

Text messages and social media cannot compare to this.

This vacation I relearned the value of simply calling a friend up, or texting to schedule. We get the calendars out, using those tools we learned professionally to make the date happen.

Getting together in-person makes space for all those other times of communication.

It’s been a full vacation, a good vacation. Life will get busy again, but for now, we soak it up, parties, coffee time, movies, fires in the fireplace, hot cocoa, hot buttered rum, and a whole lot of togetherness – turned inward, not into oneself, but into family life, into relationships. And through that, reinvigorating the part of ourselves that is so easy to let go in this stage of life. And then, through that, finding a fuller, happier way to live.

Champagne Toast
Photo by Kateryna Hliznitsova on Unsplash
Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Kings, Cakes and Traditions for Epiphany

For the 12 Days of Christmas

And now we find ourselves about to enter the 12 Days of Christmas. For a lot of people, the twelve days are observed as a countdown, but then why 12? Why not ten? Historically, the tradition of the 12 Days of Christmas begins with Christmas, leading up to Epiphany, the commemorating when the Magi from the East brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child.

As an English carol, “the 12 Days of Christmas” is a cumulative song. Its gifts are twelve drumming drummers, eleven piping pipers, ten leaping lords, nine dancing ladies, eight milking maids, seven swimming swans, six laying geese, five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and, you know, a partridge in a pear tree.

The earliest known publication is from a 1790 children’s book titled Mirth without Mischief.

In 1979, a Canadian hymnologist, Hugh D. McKellar, hypothesized that the song is a secret way of teaching one’s catechism during the persecution of Catholics in England but there is no historical support for this. He connected the items with the two testaments, the three theological virtues, the four gospels, the first five books of the old testament, the six days of creation, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the eight beatitudes, the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit, the ten commandments, the eleven apostles, the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle Creed.

I’m a bit of an originalist and use the song just as it is, a silly song to take our breath away, but I can imagine others would like to use it as a teaching tool or fun game with children, connecting the items to their faith.

And gifts

In other traditions, gifts are exchanged on Epiphany, rather than Christmas Day, which, being married to a church organist as I am, would make the day easier. Some families fill shoes on St. Nicholas Day on December 6, stuff stockings on Christmas Eve, exchange gifts on Christmas Day, and then give treats or gifts every day of the 12 Days of Christmas.

Unable to maintain the energy necessary for this feat, I purchased a vintage set of 12 Days of Christmas cookie cutters, make two batches of gingerbread or request them from my obliging mother, and set them in little bags for each of the 12 days.

12 Days of Christmas cookies

That leads us to Epiphany on January 6.

Incidentally, January 6, as the feast of the three kings, marks the opening of King Cake season when you can find King Cake in bakeries that make them, until Martis Gras, the last call for partying before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

I learned a bit about those three kings of Epiphany in a new podcast called Sunday School, part of Pillar Media. On it, Biblical Scholar Dr. Scott Powell explained what we know and what we don’t know about these three men. They were not likely kings. “Of the east” could mean anything east of the Jordan. According to Powell, the three gifts named in the narrative all come from the Babylonian region, where many Jews still lived. Powell summarizes in another podcast the prophecies from Daniel which pointed to a particular timeline that put those waiting for the Messiah on alert. In Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men, Dwight Longenecker digs deeper. There he theorizes the Magi were astrologers and diplomatic representatives of the Nabatean court who traveled from Petra to Jerusalem. For those interested, there are historical explanations.

Mystery of the Magi bookcover

A mixed approach to tradition

This year we’re complicating our older children’s lives by sharing both historical narratives and the fairytale versions. They’ve known for some time St. Nicholas is a historic person, a bishop of Myra, from the fourth century. They know the stories passed down through the centuries about him. We can also watch “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” a 1970 stop motion, made-for-TV movie, and explain that this is how someone who may not have known the history of the real St. Nicholas, imagined the reasons for red suits, etc. The story contains truth, even if its historical truth is inaccurate, like many other fairytales and legends. And along with good jokes in it, we love it.

We’ll discuss the historic nature of the wise men of the east and enjoy the song “We Three Kings.” We’ll make a King Cake for Epiphany. We take the legend with the history, the American traditions, the Catholic traditions, the English and German traditions.

And over time, our family’s traditions take shape.

Wreath of bread rolls

Preparing for Christmas

The south end of our living room is a bump out with four windows, a narrow sunbathed section we use for homeschooling, lining 100-year-old desks in a row. To the right of this section is the front door and porch, on which one of the windows overlooks. Yesterday, on that porch, with a rusty, undersized hammer, I stood on top of a child’s step stool and pounded nails into the wood, then hung thick Christmas garland from the awning and posts of the porch, swagging it across the top. Today I hung a silver star from the center.

Christmas garland

Little by little, I decorate the house for Christmas.

Advent is four weeks long. Time enough. I meet people or hear about people whose husband’s insist they wait until just before Christmas, so as not to mix up the time of preparation for the time of festivity. I encounter people who decorate the day after Thanksgiving, who argue Christmas begins December 1, and who would like to make the case that Christmas trees should be year-round, evergreen if you will.

As I place an artificial tree on a shelf, I remember the year I arranged every Christmas decoration we owned the day after Thanksgiving because there was no telling how much we’d be home that year of hospital stays. Contemplating the debate of when to decorate, I shrug my shoulders and go back to my boxes, gently unpacking, tenderly remembering the stories behind the decor.

Today, in “Seeking God’s Face” by Josef Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), I read

“Perhaps we ought to celebrate Advent by allowing the signs of this special time to penetrate freely into our hearts without resisting them in any way. We should also perhaps let ourselves be made warm by them without asking difficult questions and then, full of trust, accept the immeasurable goodness of the Child who made the mountains and hills sing and transformed the trees of the wood into a song of praise.”

So let’s do it. The early longing for lights and flavors and nostalgia hearken to a longing deep inside us for something beautiful, something transcendent that surpasses the cares of today. Don’t do it so much that you’re tired of it by the time Christmas comes, that is, on December 25, but just enough.

Go slowly.

Savor the time of Christmas preparation.

Shop in person.

Locally. With a friend. And hot apple cider. Have your shopping list, a list of people you are shopping for and see what you find, serendipitously.

Listen to the music you like.

Seasonal does not have to mean the same thing for everyone. Some of my friends are listening to Handel’s Messiah. We’re listening to the Christmas albums by Big Bag Voodoo Daddy and singing old-school Advent and Christmas hymns.

Find some traditional recipes, either traditional from your family or your culture or different culture that you’re drawn to. We make Russian Tea Cakes, also called Mexican Wedding Cakes, gingerbread cookies, and Spritz.


No kids in the home? No matter! Here are some simple projects.

Dehydrate some oranges in the oven or a dehydrator.

Poke ‘em with a needle and thread and hang them on the tree or garland. Discard after the season. My children would say you can eat these at the end of the season, too. I leave that to your judgment.

Collect pine cones.

Set out. Get fancy and spray paint with a little gold or silver for a flourish.

Paint a walnut gold.

Walnuts ready for a Christmas craft

Hot glue a loop of twine to the top. Hang from the tree or garland. You can save, eat or discard at the end of the season.

Christmas tree with painted walnut ornaments

This year we’re planning to add painted wood ornaments to the mix.

After talking with an artist at the Carnegie Arts Center Artisan Market last month, I have an idea for painting “ornaments” on circular disks of wood.

Use evergreens.

You can get free evergreens from Christmas tree lots and make your own wreaths or garland. Tie them together with green florist wire. Garnish with foraged greenery or wintry berries (also ask permission if it isn’t your house).

Advent wreath with collected greens

There isn’t a right way or a wrong way to it all unless you’re drained of joy because of the muchness of the Christmas season.

The dark emotions of sadness, grief, and loneliness, can also be present, even in moments of joy. The joy possible in this season is not a fluffy sort of happiness, but the lasting kind that has the power to withstand human suffering. Remember the Christmas truce. Remember the stories you have heard. Remember the original story that started it all.

And have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

No Holiday without Ghosts

In San Francisco

I park by valet now. It took a while to get used to it, but since they built the Chase Center across the street from the hospital, valet became the only option for parking during our routine UCSF appointments. That means, a drive around the hospital and clinic building to get to the correct entrance to drop off our car and, yesterday, that meant seeing the enormous Chase Center Christmas tree through the back window.

“Do you want to see it?” I asked him. Eagerly, he said, “yes.”

The air was crisp and cool.

We walked along the pavement darkened by morning rain and felt the breeze cut through our inadequate clothing. After half a block I asserted my motherly authority and made him put his coat over his thin cotton sleeves.

As we walked up to the corner, his brisk steps quickened. “There it is!” I pointed, smiling with delight as he jumped up and down.

I walked faster to keep up with him as we crossed the street. He grinned and squealed as only six -almost- seven-year-old boys can. “It’s so big!” he gushed.

After a look and a couple of photos, he was ready to escape the cold and we walked back. Waiting on the street corner to cross, my mind flashed back to the many times I stood on that corner alone, walking from Family House each morning to see my son at the hospital.

It was cold in those days, too.

Each time this year, vivid memories return of the days of December passing, counting down, wondering how long we would stay, seeing the floors empty out as staff began their holiday vacations. I bought a small Christmas tree and a set of ornaments for the hospital room; I wove finger garland to decorate his crib. My parents purchased battery-operated lights. His room was decorated, in case we stayed two days longer.

Those memories don’t leave me.

The sadness, grief and fear all associated with the past and the reality of the present do not leave me. This season of Advent, I am reading “Seeking God’s Face,” a collection of homilies from Pope Benedict XVI for the year, and “Healing Through Dark Emotions” by Miriam Greenspan, a book recommended me to by a counselor I met through palliative care, six, almost, seven years ago.

Both invite the reader to turn towards the difficulty of sadness or grief, the silence of Advent, the forced stop of illness. Both say, there is something here to be discovered. Within these weeks leading us to Christmas, lighting one candle at a time, dispelling darkness gradually as the nights themselves grow darker and colder, I recall the last line of Dana Gioia’s poem, “Tinsel, Frankincense and Myrrh.”

“No holiday is holy without ghosts.”

Dana Gioia from “Tinsel, Frankincense and Myrrh”

My counselor taught me we only can keep going in life when we make space for both the dark and light emotions, or as Greenspan says when we invite grief to pull up a chair.

When we crossed the street, the breeze whipping our cheeks to a healthy pink, I felt not only the moment before me but the depth within me of how far back that moment reaches to those lonely mornings, those mornings with a sort of agonizing hope that we would soon go home and be reunited. It reaches all the way back into my broken heart and comes out again in the immensity of that Christmas tree and utter delight at my child jumping around it, who once lay listless on a hospital bed.

This is the holiday season for those who have known sadness and come out on the other side able to share its story.

We may not frolic on own, we may grow quiet in reflection, we may step away for a moment to cry. The joy is there, it just looks different, but we feel it, deeper than we could imagine as it comes to us wrapped in the trimmings of gratitude and a prayer that the good times may continue, tied with an understanding that they may not.

Be merciful to those who suffer this holiday season.

Pull up a chair for the ghosts they carry with them. Sit with them and hear their stories. I thank you for listening to mine.

Vacation with five kids? What’s the point?

At our mid-fall vacation

A redwood, with its bark fallen away, stretched from one side of the creek to another, perfectly meeting both ends as a bridge. I eyed the 8-foot distance from it to the shallow creek below.

“Can we go across it?”

“Better not. Or at least, not as far as the water. I guess we could go a little way. No? You don’t want to try. I’ll go a little. See? Does anyone else want to try? I bet your father would go the whole way across.”

Family vacation, days of togetherness, separated away from the world at a cabin with a deck where ravens fly overhead and a bear passed by midmorning, beyond the range of At&t cell phone service, layers strip away from family life. No laundry, few dishes, simple meals, no work or outside commitments. We see better what we are and of what our relationships are made. My younger son snuggles next to me at random and says, “I love you, mommy.” His younger sister imitates him. The pre-teen can barely contain her annoyance at the siblings just below her in rank.

During the vacation, my elder son’s adventurousness, his desire to explore, and his openness to experience came into view. One daughter’s interiority displayed itself like a billboard and another daughter’s creativity came ringing out in her lament over bringing only one notebook for drawing, and none for writing.

My husband’s eyes lit up as he shared his tasting notes following a solo visit to Hinterhaus Distillery in Arnold, Calif. My eyes did something of the same as my fingers ran along the embossed covers of hardback classics at Books on Main in Murphys.

The toddler got into mischief. There were behavioral ups and downs, and physiological ups and downs from sore muscles to growing pains to over-tiredness.

But we kept at it.

The three older kids and I approached a lady who was just finishing her walk. She told us of two possibilities for reaching the Arnold rim trail around White Pines Lake. “It looks like some people set down rocks so you can go across the creek to get to it, but it really is quite beautiful along the creek and only about 100 yards.”

We took the path along the creek, ducking under branches, stepping over roots and rocks, tripping here and there as if we were to spell bound by the storybook quality of finding fairies in under two-foot tall ferns, trolls under bridges made from the trunks of fallen trees, and magical powers hidden in mushrooms we know too little about to identify or touch. The light filtered through the tree branches; the creek pooled and sputtered around rocks, creating little pools of foam and miniature white waters.

My children are amazed at the sight of all this. Along with the height of the redwoods, we marveled at the size of the raven and its ability to answer back, the sounds squirrels make, and the way a deer stands on its hind legs to reach the tree branches early in the early morning.

And we marvel in our own ways.

My son discussed what he has seen, jokes, and anthropomorphizes them. Another child immediately set to drawing the trees and leaves and collecting specimens. The other daydreamed the hours away in quiet dissatisfaction or perhaps a satisfaction beyond my powers to discern. I sat and read and listened to the prattle of the little ones who felt a little out of sorts because we so rarely travel, but who by the last day never wanted to leave.

Still, upon getting home they felt so immediately at home in their own beds, as we did too.

There is no great revelation.

Only a series of observations, sitting with what I have seen.

I suppose that is rather the point of vacation – to stop, to be still, to be together, to be less about quantitative activities and make space for qualitative time. With so many to-do lists and projects, juggling all the things, we need to pause and stop progressing, stop working, stop meeting goals and learn to just be. “To be” means to exist. We are a family. We exist together in this space.

And sometimes, that needs to be all that matters.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Your community newspaper matters and here’s why

Five years at the newspaper

Five years ago, for the first time, I reported on the Kids Craft Fair for our local newspaper, the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch. The fair, hosted by the Stanislaus County Library, ran along the sides of the Modesto Library portico. My three big kids, ages nearly 7, nearly 5, and 3 surrounded the umbrella stroller and shuttled my one-and-a-half-year-old son about the place. October 2017.

Youth Craft Fair at the Stanislaus Library, Modesto branch

Our Octobers in 2015 and 2016 were rough months. 2016 was a rough year and the first half of 2017 was no better. They were our personal 2020, so to speak, with loss, isolation, and learning to find good even amid great difficulty.

I saw an advertisement in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch, a print-only newspaper that is part of MidValley Publications, for a writer and emailed the publisher, Mr. John Derby, to discuss freelancing for this paper, continuing this column which I began in 2015 and reporting on 2-3 church and community events every week.

First time reporter

As for reporting, that first event was the curviest of learning curves as I walked my children around the portico crowded with over 100 young vendors and their families. I awkwardly stopped to talk to different sellers to discover the local angle, the link that ties an event in Modesto to our own community.

As I began to attend events I might not otherwise have attended, ask questions, learn the background of the event, its purpose, and the motivation, experiences and stories of those involved, I found that my appreciation and enjoyment of the event itself deepened. One begins to notice more things, like how frantic first-time caterers are, or how relaxed organizers are once the event gets going and they are finally sitting with a glass of wine and taking it in. The personal experience becomes heightened by tuning into the experience of others. I witnessed the challenges faced to make it come together and the pleasure of success when hard fundraisers are over. And overall these are the mission behind what the person is doing.

What the community paper does

Getting to know you

By focusing solely on the local, the community newspaper introduces you to your neighbors and helps you to know and recognize one another. Author Wendell Berry, The Need to be Whole theorizes that it is the lack of knowledge of one another that might be at the heart of many of our society’s problems. The bigger the community, the easier it is to fly under the radar and go unnoticed. Not so in the small town.

That discomfort of the fish bowl is not what we’re after. Rather, it’s the celebration. At Main Street Deli, I sat down with a little leaguer about to travel to Washington DC to capture in words his story and his success. At teh Courthouse, watched Hughson High School Mock Trial students gear up for their next trial. On the high school campus academic decathlon students who were on the path to nationals told me their stories.

Sharing your stories

On these pages, we have the opportunity to share your stories and the good work being done in this town. The intention is not to sugarcoat, but to spotlight. And we do that as an independent press.

Print slows us down. It presents the opportunity to pause and be present to the physical and limited world around us, rather than the digital window that opens up to the entire universe from as far away as the telescope or scientific theories can reach to the most hidden and abstract thoughts of the human mind presented with words on a screen.

Making a difference

This is the area we can affect. City Council elections are ones where your vote makes a difference, no matter what side of the political fence you fancy.

Volunteer work in this town helps individuals you can meet and know and see again after the job is done.

When you serve a fundraising dinner, attend graduation or imbibe samples at Taste of Hughson, it is alongside people you may already know or could meet and get to know even better at the next event.

My background in psychology inclines me to listen to the words of others, to discover the story and motivation therein that ties it all together, and to be able to present that narrative in an unbiased way.

We have a lot of dinners, especially drive-thru dinners. There are fundraisers and community events designed to support local businesses and projects. There are parades aplenty.

And for all of that, we’re here, ready to share those stories, those successes.

That’s the power of the positive press.

The Joy in an Old Friend

The Departure

Naturally, it seemed brilliant to use credit card points and book a hotel to spare me in the morning leading up to a 7 a.m. flight to Charlotte, North Carolina. The drive was smooth; the hotel was a peaceful and strange experience without children, with books and writing for free and fun for the first time in ages. The shuttle departed at 5:05 a.m. I arrived at the airport at just the right time and went through security.

After hustling to the correct terminal, I arrived at the Gate and saw that the flight now departed at 10 a.m. One hour later, the time changed to 2 p.m. We lined up to request new routes, meal vouchers and the like. After two hours in line, checking up on what others were doing, and calling American Airlines multiple times, the flight shifted three more times, deciding finally to leave at 3:30 p.m. and land sometime around 11 p.m. Slating my arrival time at my friend’s house for after 1 a.m. This was not what we planned on. 

After bonding with strangers in line, I purchased my lunch and made the best of things. There are nice chairs in SFO and charging stations everywhere. I packed “The Master of Hestviken” by Sigrid Undset for company, read, wrote and took periodic walks knowing I eventually would end up sitting on an airplane, however distant that possibility felt. The nine-hour delay was one of those opportunities to practice the flexibility I am often preaching. 

The flight itself was fantastic.

After nine hours, most passengers were rerouted and only 50 remained. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” who made it through the wait and determined staying the course was our best or only option.

The trip itself was a personal one, sprinkled with work here and there. My destination was the home of a friend, one of the thick-or-thin types, the type of person with whom I feel utterly at home. 


She lives in a little town founded in 1812 at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a population of 3687 at its last census count. We walked Main Street arm-in-arm, so to speak, poked around pioneer cabins, and met the locals. In the twin town next door, founded in 1891 with a population of 4131 at its last census, we antiqued at Key City Antiques and marked that Carolina Treasures on Main has three floors of antiques waiting to be discovered. I drank a perfectly spicy Mayan Mocha at Talia Espresso. We ate BBQ chicken, pulled pork, fried squash, fried okra, hush puppies, and potato wedges at Brushy Mountain Smokehouse and Creamery for around $9 a dish. The remarkable prices ended up not mattering when we discovered the gentleman at the table next to us, who knows my friend, paid our tab. We followed dinner with house-made ice cream.

The next day they drove me to the scenic overlooks of the Blue Ridge Mountains where trees release isoprene into the air giving the province a bluish tinge. The diversity of trees and smattering of wildflowers wherever I looked made every good impression on me. Goldenrod and Mile and Minute Vine are invasive, but also beautiful and sculptural accents of an area I had never seen before. We continued up the Blue Ridge Parkway to Boone where I shopped like a tourist at Mast General Store Old Boone Mercantile. 

The last day of my whirlwind trip was a walk with the family along the Fourth Ward neighborhood in Charlotte and playtime at a playground in the shadows of First Presbyterian Church. I silently crossed myself as we passed the Old Settler Cemetery, a good Catholic practice, and marveled that the oldest grave there belongs to Joel Baldwin who died October 21, 1776. 

Best of all

But better than all this was that feeling of home, of talking and not worrying, of being known and knowing the woman with which I spoke without any difficulty, talking about cake decorating, family and friend drama, and the wonders of parenting. Now I hold in my mind and imagination the places she visits, the people of whom she speaks, and the goodness and quirks that invade her daily life as she parents three children across the country. It’s a gift to be so united. Nine hours delay was nothing compared to the joy in an old friend.

Use the five senses to make this autumn amazing

The five senses: sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch.

We most fully experience a thing when we can engage the senses. How do we do it in our home?

Beatus Autumnus banner
Please note: we got our Latin wrong

First, sight.

When fall officially begins, I bring out a string of handmade bunting from orange linen-look fabric purchased at Rainbow Fabrics at 751 N Golden State Blvd in Turlock. I cut the fabric into triangles, did a simple stitch with a sewing machine along the edges so it would not fray past a certain point and used graphite paper and computer print outs to trace the world “Beatus Autumnus,” Latin words for “Blessed Autumn.” I colored the letters in with permanent marker and hot glued the letters to a stretch of baking twice. It’s an official moment in the house when the banner comes out.

I also add a piece of art and replace a piece of artwork with “Halloween Ride” by Patricia Palmerino and “Marshmallows and ghost stories” by Katherine Blower. We purchased the first at the Farmer’s Market in Alexandria, VA, when attending it was part of life lived in Virginia and the second on Society6. 

Autumnal blankets in tans, indigo blues and oranges come out, along with new pillow colors in the same autumnal hues. I filled my Heath Ceramics vases, purchased online, with tied bunches dried straw flowers, thistle, bunny tails ornament grass, and dried yarrow, and set them on the fireplace mantle. 

Dried flowers with Heath Ceramics vases

Second, smell.

I recently returned to my adolescent love of scented candles. Buy them and burn them. I’m starting with Apple Harvest from Trader Joe’s first and will move to “Manhattan” from Crate and Barrel and then settle on the warm scents of candles purchased at Vintage Market at 210 East Main Street in Turlock.

Third, taste.

You know it. I know it. So I’ll just admit it. It’s pumpkin spice. Pumpkin spice in homemade lattes, pumpkin spice sprinkles on apples picked at a neighbor’s orchard in a red casserole dish. Apple crisp, apply crumble, apple pie. In one month my children will be so tired of apples, but they do not know that now. The baking provides the fall aroma, the baskets and compotes filled with apples around the kitchen and dining room offer one more visual aid. I was one day too early to purchase Trader Joe’s Spiced Apple Cider but it is 100% worth it. If you are a cocktail drinker, try this mixed with Fireball and Brandy for a drink we call a “Hot Autumn Evening.”

Green apples in a wire basket

Fourth, sound.

It goes simply for us. The children and I sing the song from Disney’s “Johnny Appleseed” and a German folk song, “Autumn Leaves are a-falling”. I haven’t a set playlist, but I am certainly working on one for All Soul’s Day and the rest of November. 

And lastly, touch.

The cozy textures, wearing long sleeves and long pants and long pajamas, wrapping up in a robe or blanket early in the morning, cross legged on the couch, shivering against the breeze blowing through the open windows. 

Thirfted blanket, handmade pillow and West Elm velvet pillow

Wherever activities fall in this lineup of sensory experiences, they probably capture it all.

We hope to wander a corn maze, pick more apples, drink apple cider, read The Pumpkin Runner, The Ox-Cart Man, Room on a Broom, Too Many Pumpkins, and A Thanksgiving Story.

My husband and I watch the 1930s horror movie classics like Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We may sprinkle in some Hitchcock and new films like Coraline and Corpse Bride. The kids will make it through “It’s the Great Pumpkin Halloween.”

We serve a dinner with pork chops, butternut squash soup, homemade bread, with apple cobbler and acorn squash ice cream for dessert. We listen to music outdoors and enjoy the cool evenings we thought never would come. 

It’s the littlest moments and littlest touches that make this season something wonderful in our household. We engage the senses. They are thirteen years in the making. New traditions emerge, old traditions adapt, some years a particular one is skipped altogether. But no matter, they still make fall what it is for us, a thing of beauty, gratitude for the harvest and delight.