The Rigors of Rigoletto (and other arts)

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

On October 25 and 27, Opera Modesto will present the Guiseppe Verdi’s masterpiece Rigoletto to enthusiastic Gallo Center audiences. Like many classic operas, the tragic story centers around a licentious noble (the Duke of Mantua), a character with some deformity (the Duke’s court jester, a hunchbacked Rigoletto) and a beautiful woman (Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda). Opera Modesto brings back to the stage local favorites like Artistic and Creative Director Roy Stevens to play Rigoletto.

Roy Stevens as Rigoletto, Slovenian National Opera, who will star as Rigoletto for Opera Modesto
Roy Stevens as Rigoletto, Slovenian National Opera

In a continued spirit of collaboration Opera Modesto welcomes Victor Starsky of New York to sing the role of the Duke and Maya Kherani from San Francisco to performing as Gilda; and shines the spotlight on local rising stars making their operatic debuts: Amelia Schmidt of Oakdale as Contessa Ceprano; Summer Opera Institute teen performer Elizabeth Barton as the Paggio; and Kristina Townsend Memorial Competition award winner, Christopher Rodriguez (Fresno State) as the Ufficiale. 

Age-old truths come to life through opera: an avenue that combines the arts uniquely and boldly through costume design (visual arts), stage direction and acting, vocal performance, instrumental performance, and storytelling. According to Joseph Pearce, author, literature scholar and Director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee, stories are interesting because people are interesting. “They relate lessons, insights, and experiences better than a straight presentation of the facts. Someone may be nodding along with a story when they’d be nodding off at a sermon.”

In their best works, storytellers like Shakespeare take the reader the outer rim of what language can do. They impress connoisseurs with their mastery. Opera does this with vocal performance. I have seen crowds go mad over 5-minute drum solos and long-held notes by country music singers. To see the repeated and taxing effort of an opera performer hold not one note but sing an entire aria without a microphone, traveling the vast range of human vocal potential, is spellbinding. 

We love to watch human feats. Being both spiritual and material beings, these feats act as a demonstration of the power of the will to push the body. The arts (visual, performance, written or craft) point us to the immaterial of man when a common physical or cognitive ability evolves to something beautiful.

Beauty, simply put by Thomas Aquinas, is that which, when seen, pleases. It shows the best of the object. One can use a voice to shout obscenities or harmonize. One can punch a wall or perform a fouette. I can text “wher u at” or transcribe a sonnet in calligraphy. We can profess “it all goes to the same place” or take a multi-course meal in its time savoring flavors that need not be exotic but simply bring out the goodness and quality of local cuisine. 

Every human action has this potential. We are physical, thinking and feeling beings, and every type of action can become an art form, performed with rhythm, apparent ease, style and flourish. 

It looks easy. Yet, the artist will tell you, the very best work comes only with difficulty. “Learning isn’t supposed to be fun, it’s work,” my college professor expounded in his disinterest in the style of education that serves the pleasure rather than the discipline of the child.

The goal of these arts, whether woodworking, poetry recitation, or football drills, aims at the same– not merely task completion, but to do so well and with mastery. 

This the potential of human nature more than other (irrational) animals. We have minds that can do, train and then with all the skills in hand, begin to practice the art – the part that feels, that requires intuition, saying, “I just knew it would work.”

Each has his art and not every art fits the standard description of “the arts.” We are all artists who must find that area that will speak to the soul and expand the mind, push the body, and reward not only the self but those who witness it. 

For my part, I look forward to once again, seeing this act in operatic form this month at “Rigoletto” at the Gallo Center in Modesto. For more information, visit www.operamodesto.org.

Rigoletto teaser poster

What I Learned This Summer

Each season Emily P. Freeman, author of A Million Little Ways, Simply Tuesdays, and The Next Right Thing, invites her readers to take a moment to reflect on what they learned that season. This time, at first, I passed over the proposition, my mind too preoccupied.
Early Tuesday morning as I found my mind wandering amongst my thoughts, I stumbled across the memory of the latent suggestion and paused to consider what took place in the last three months. What did I learn this summer?

The results were staggering.

Newly planted perennial garden illustrates the lessons I learned this summer


If Memorial Day is the unofficial beginning of summer, we can start there. We learned we are expecting another child to our family. That makes five. But with past struggles and tragedies, no pregnancy is simple.
Incidentally, I had a manuscript to write, a devotional to help pregnant women find peace in their pregnancies whether it is their first pregnancy or their fifth.


For the first time, I learned I could find peace in my pregnancy.


The book was written, edited and turned in according to my deadline. We will see that next spring.
Writing a book feels like planting bulbs, as does pregnancy.

Gardening tools in red wagon and flower bed act as a metaphor for what I learned this summer

One puts a great deal of effort into this hidden thing. It stays hidden, except for the change inside the one making the effort. Suddenly, it all changes. Boxes arrive on the doorstep filled with copies of one book with my name on the cover. Flowers burst forth in spring. A baby changes every routine built in the once-baby-less space.
I planned and prepped for our homeschool year, approaching, in trepidation, the education of three individuals in separate grades. This seemed a very big transition to have a fourth grader to teach.
Two long days were spent in combing the syllabi and curriculum, and the formation of a daily, weekly, and year-long schedule. I thought, “how can I do this?”


Within the first week, I learned I can do this.


The lessons were the same as last year. If I focus, if I guard myself against distraction, if I have a plan, we can do this. The children thrive, our relationship grows as we spent the exciting time of learning new things together, and our home benefits from the discipline and structure that are necessary to make a busy household work well.


The ultrasound turned out beautifully, the book launched, the homeschool year began. We are busy, tired, but joyfully embracing this season knowing activities may get very quiet for some of us as the room fills with the sounds of a newborn baby.
The things I work on and experience are nested within my family’s experience as a whole because I have a family. Family members affect each other, whether they like it or not. This summer we saw the happy family development of a successful September planting that takes chickens into account, growth in my husband’s business and new schedule arrangements that make life better for everyone in the home.


In between all this, are the moments of everyday: pausing to eat healthy, to plan a meal for my children, to invite other women into my home to know each other better, to pray more, to read in the afternoon, to close everything and turn away from everything, looking into the eyes of the child who wants to tell me about Pokémon, a dream, or the city they built for ants in the dirt at the foot of the mulberry tree.


I feel like more than ever, this season, I have learned that life is good and full of promise.

I invite you to savor the good days, the good moments, even if they are surrounded by clouds of unknowing in the darker seasons of your life.
Peace is possible. You can do it. The sun will shine again.


What did you learn this summer?

Four Steps to Publication

Life is moving swiftly along. A few people have asked me how one gets a book published, so this seems a good format to share with you how it happened to me. Two and a half years ago, I asked myself the question “where do I go from here?” We had returned from my stillborn daughter’s funeral; my son was in and out of the hospital. How could I sustain a Life Coaching business with my schedule consistently unpredictable and my heart drained of its resources to help others?

I threw my weight into writing and have not looked back since.

pencils with text write. just write

For those who love to write, the most important step above every other step is this: write. Just write.

Do not write for an audience. Write for your heart. Some advise aspirants to write daily. The most important thing is that writing is a regular part of your life. Some begin writing with a blog in mind and bog those creative tunnels down with questions about audience, topics, titles, and reach…but all of this comes later. To write well, you must write, period.

There is an element of gift in it. Many published authors share the story of how they have been writing since they were children: short stories, long journal entries, dreams of seeing their names paired with titles on the library shelf. This is because writing was a functional way for those individuals to process their thoughts. It seemed nothing else would work. Writing as an act of expressing is the first part. The second part is the skill, the craft. This can and should be learned. That is why the second step is:

library shelf with text learn the craft of writing

To learn about the craft of writing.

I had those meager lessons in 30-student classrooms filled with adolescents who hated writing. There were better lessons in college with willing professors who either aspired to teach us great things or could not themselves stomach our lack of writing skill. Either way, I soaked up the lessons and knew early on that to be able to transition between registers or styles of writing was a skill in itself. I ought not to complain that academic writing stifled my “voice.” The more versatile we are, the better. Being out of school without the possibility of earning another degree at this time, I followed the rabbit hole of book recommendations from A Million Little Ways to The Memoir Project to Gwynne’s Grammar to The Business of Being a Writer to Mystery and Manners. The list goes on. As I read, I learned and put into practice what I learned because I was writing regularly, for you, here in this column.

books stacked with text read

The third step is to read.

Read long and often. In The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon Gordon advises O’Connor to study the writing in novels by Henry James and Gustave Flaubert. Reading great literature exposes you to extensive vocabulary, the art of sentence structure, perspective, voice, and character development. The classics stretch our mind to see worlds beyond the one we are used to, to sympathize with points of view we might find abhorrent in a modern-day mind, and to engage with deep ideas of humanity and love.

laptop with text connect

The fourth step is to connect.

I joined a writers’ communities called the Catholic Writers Guild and Hope*Writers, along with informal Facebook groups interested in writing and literature. Hope* Writers became an invaluable resource where the founders provide opportunities to learn from experts in the field about the craft and business of writing. From there, I learned the rest of the steps.

I connected, I wrote, I edited extensively, I submitted, I accepted suggestions and changed plans. I kept going even when evaluation of my work felt frightful. It is not an impossible dream, but unlike a wish, it takes work to get there. All that for the desire to publish.

But if you want to write, just write. Everyone has a story to share, and every story is worth putting pen to paper, no matter what happens to it from there. If you have more questions about the process, please feel free to ask me at writer@kathryannecasey.com.

Previously published at the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

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Lessons in War & Peace: the miniseries review

 

A little late, I know…

 

Television has been a problem for me lately. Not that I watch too much, but that I cannot decide what to watch. It may be the number of great works I read, but the moment a character or a scene lets me down with its flatness, its lifelessness, its crudeness, my interest dissipates.

Someone recommended, War & Peace (2015) starring Lily James (aka Cinderella, aka from Downtown Abbey). The book, by Leo Tolstoy, is a whopping 1300 pages of classic Russian literature, a triumph for the most ambitious of readers.

I cannot speak to the faithfulness to the original, but this miniseries amazed me. Like all these period dramas coming out, it presents beautiful costumes, beautiful scenery, beautiful leads, etc. Better than all the rest I have seen lately it possesses multi-layered sweeping landscapes, a process for sharing the interior disposition of the character, growth, change, the descent into vice, the struggle into virtue, remorse, hate and forgiveness acted on the stage with startling depth.

 

Paul Dano, James Norton, and Lily James in War & Peace (2016)

 

As I watched the penultimate episode, I considered the title and its themes. “War & Peace” is set in Russia beginning in 1805 with Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Two more wars follow, but the war that really matters to the story is during the supposed peace, the armistice, between Russia and France in which all the characters fall.

We track these movements of the characters and their search for the possibility of happiness, despair in the sight of losing it and the final revelation of its realness, its existence, because of love.

It is during the final war of the drama, in 1812 when Moscow burns and thousands die to slow Napoleon’s march, that the characters find peace in themselves and with others. It is in the face of fear of certain death that the characters begin to seek forgiveness.

Dubbed Post-traumatic Growth, researchers and therapists sought to define this phenomenon of the sense of goodness, peace, fulfillment and even joy that occurs after terrible tragedy. This ancient theme seen throughout literature, myth, and religion is only recently given space in modern psychological research through the realm of positive psychology. It occurs in five general areas: new opportunities that would not otherwise exist, closer relationships or increased connection with those who have suffered, an increased sense of personal strength, greater appreciation for life in general, and a deepening or evolution in one’s spiritual life.

Those who have not suffered greatly might be tempted to say to those who have, “I can’t imagine how you did that” or “I couldn’t get through it like you” or ask “how did you manage?”

When people appear to come out the other side of suffering, it is very likely because they found meaning in it in one of these five dimensions. They found a motivation making it worth enduring, rather than giving up in despair, numbing through self-medication or hardening their hearts.

War can be an external and an internal affair. The external are matters of state fought by soldiers on the ground. The internal is self against self, a new self fighting to free oneself from the old habits, a search for happiness, a search for love.

The external trials can become a vehicle for resolving the battle within to find peace. Fr. Jacques Philippe explains peace, without trial, when untested, is fragile and fails easily. But when tried in the fire, it strengthens. The peaceful person is the one we see who can maintain peace even as life’s circumstances change.

The person trying to imagine suffering or simply saying they cannot without trying, may be looking at from the perspective of his or her present abilities. As one moves through the trial, those abilities widen, deepen and grow roots. What one survives at the end is not what one could have survived at the beginning. Those heroes of suffering did not begin as heroes. They became heroes in their perseverance, in their willingness to see what the moment has for them and their choice to open their heart to receive it.

 

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Should This Column Change Your Life?

 

Previously published at the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

 

I was grateful this morning to wake and find a comment on a piece I wrote a while back titled, “Are You a Caregiver Burning Out?” The column itself meant a lot to me as it was the fruit of my first realization that I fit in the category of “caregiver” and with that, the advice I regularly read for caregivers also applied to me. Being a person less inclined to let me off the hook, the excuse “experts say I should” fascinates rest quite nicely for me.

In the comment, the reader said my writing did little more than help a person feel good in a moment, but tips and to-dos are no substitute for the real work of love.

I whole-heartedly agree.

Which is why I hate the click-bait headlines:

“Ten secrets to a happy marriage.”

“Solve all your problems with three easy steps!”

“Never gain weight again!!”

“Five ways you’re ruining your life (and how we can help you fix it)!!!”

“One Step to Get You on the Path to Never Suffer Again!!!!”

Too many articles promise with their openings lines to fix our lives. The melodrama piques our curiosity and draws us in. Generally dividing the steps/tips/mistakes into one or two individual slides, the desire to know what comes next and if it will be worth it keeps us clicking. Each click earns the advertising dollar for the company who created the articles, paid for by the companies splattered all across the screen.

Those companies and advertisers track the number of views per screen and direct their actions accordingly.

In newspapers this is called “yellow journalism” and refers to (according to Wikipedia) “journalism and associated newspapers that present little or no legitimate well-researched news while instead using eye-catching headlines for increased sales. Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism.” The term was coined in the 1890s and describes that era and the emergence of tabloids.

The method is not new. Only the medium.

Meanwhile, and less in-your-face, the self-help industry is booming. In 2016, the U.S. self-help industry was worth about $9.9 billion dollars, according to a report from Research and Markets. Their titles and approach, like the clickbait, offer to tell you the secret to the meaning of life, and how to live it.

Every generation likely has its own version: “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” in the 1990s, “The Total Money Makeover” in the 2000s or “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” in the 2010s. The field goes back as far as the 1850s.

These books and articles generally lack a philosophical framework to hold up their claims. Thus nothing lasts longer than a moment. According to Aristotle, happiness cannot be sought for its owns sake. It is a byproduct, the result of good actions done habitually, of living a life more human than animal, by practicing virtue (not limited to a Christian perspective).

The best books and works speak to us about the universal condition of love, suffering and death, and then convict us to act rightly. The best columns will do likewise.

I found my right place at the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch with its mission to promote the positive press. We are not interested in clickbait or sensational news. We tell the stories because people are what matter. This column is not meant to solve all your problems but is an invitation to think about them, as I write to you about the idea I myself am exploring in my own life.

From the distance of pen and paper, no one can make you act. The column, book, retreat or therapy session might have a powerful effect, lifting you from the moment of fleeting or lasting self-deprecation. But to really face the problems of life one must put the phone away, lay aside the newspaper, close the self-help book, get outside and get to work.

A lot of people are already doing it. Improving your life might just mean taking one step towards doing it better.

 

Kathryn is a freelance writer in Hughson, California. To read more of her writing, go to http://www.kathrynannecasey.com.

Kathryn Anne Casey

http://www.KathrynAnneCasey.com

Hughson, CA  95326

 

END

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“Strength” is on Display at the Mistlin Fine Art Gallery in Complementary Therapies Program

This piece was published in a shortened form in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch, October 30, 2018.

 

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“Strength: An Exhibition of Inspirational Art and Writing” at the Mistlin Fine Art Gallery puts on display the potential of post-traumatic growth in Modesto. It comes to display through the Complementary Therapies Program at Memorial Medical Center, a program designed to support cancer survivors and their caregivers.

The program, beginning in 2006 under the direction of Dr. David Adkins, is open any cancer survivors and caregivers of cancer patients regardless of health insurance or hospital affiliation. It offers classes in art, photography, writing, gardening, movement, music, and strength-and-fitness to complement medical treatment for cancer, not replace it. These classes seek to serve and support the emotional and psychological well-being of patients helping them turn a life-threatening potentially debilitating experience into one full of potential, to grow and seize life. They become more than survivors, they are “thrivers.”

In 2004 Memorial Hospital Foundation provided the funds to develop the program. At the time, no one knew entirely what “Complementary therapies” meant. To some, it sounded suspicious, in line with treating a physical condition by purely spiritual or new age means. After offering monthly introductory classes for a year and a half, the class subjects were chosen and from the beginning have been a tremendous success, explained Cheryl Casey, Coordinator of Community Outreach for Memorial Medical Center, Cancer Services.

Dr. Adkins described it, “Art was one of those that took off right from the beginning…You see in the gallery some results, phenomenal artwork. Every piece speaks to the emotions and the process these patients have gone through expressed how they feel helps time to get their word out.”

Much of the program’s strength comes from creating or working in a room surrounded by those connected with the shared and unique experience of cancer. Casey explained, “it offers the freedom to talk about it or not to talk about it. It’s not a support group.”

 

The hospital partnered with California State University Stanislaus to study the outcomes of the program. They found, through surveys and in-depth interviews, an overall positive outcome defined as patients feeling better, less pain, discomfort, and stress. While positive for patients, they found caregivers were even more dramatically positively affected.

When asked why Dr. Adkins described caregivers as the “unsung heroes” in cancer treatment, taking on the emotional trauma and stress in caring for a loved one in cancer but without support or recognition.

 

Each program carries a life of its own and is run according to the number of classes contracted with the facilitator and the group’s needs. Casey described “strength-and-fitness is almost like their next step after they get out of therapy.”

The gardening class is currently preparing to plant daffodils, which they will plant and distribute to patients in the spring. There are patients and caregivers who stay with one class and others who sign up for as many as they can. “They’re so overwhelmed by their diagnosis they just need to lose themselves in something, It’s just such a great distraction, something to focus on, something else gets your mind in a better place. It’s hard to heal when you’re anxious or depressed or lonely.”

 

The group of facilitators grew organically from personal recommendations. Casey said, “Dr. Adkins didn’t care what was after their name (if they had a degree). It was all about the person and being able to trust them with our patients…like we would run these if we ran them ourselves.”

Galen Martin, who lives in Waterford, has facilitated the art group for seven years after the former facilitator moved out of the area. Her family owned Artel Art Supplies and helped provide art tools and supplies discounted or donated for the Complementary Therapies Program. As a facilitator, her goal is to “Facilitate a safe environment for people to be creative and express themselves through some type of art medium or artistic means in ways that other ways say talk or other means doesn’t allow.”

She wants to “Let them be in charge of their healing and in charge of their process and their journey through their treatment, their caregiving…helping them again be in a place where they feel safe and explore the meaning of what they’re going through…reaching it on their own. I’m not the one who gets them there. I help get them started.”

The art class differs from art therapy which works one-on-one with a patient to help them peel back the layers through unstructured art. Instead, Martin teaches her students techniques, learns what their hopes are and guides them in the direction they want to go.

New artists have the option to join a class for beginners. That beginners class created the painting of a lotus flower, made of 42 individuals squares, which will be hung in the oncology unit at the hospital along with other group projects from the show.

Martin is currently pursuing a Masters in Psychology and Counseling Techniques. She sees symbolism as a powerful way for patients to process their emotions through their art. “The lotus flower thrives off of dark murky waters that you wouldn’t think would grow out of that, pull sits strength out of dark murky waters and blossoms into something beautiful and pristine.”

Throughout the exhibit, patients and caregivers answer the question, “Where does my strength come from?”

“I’ve seen the necessity and in my studies, I’ve realized this is something that is missing for not just art, Complementary Therapies in general. Community interaction and involvement is a huge part of the healing process,” Martin said.

“I have seen people come out of a lot of really intense moments in life just from being in the program. ‘The program has saved their lives.’ It seems overreaching but I just asked the person, why is that? What is it that made that happen for you? Everyone has a different reason. It’s not the same. It’s touched people in different ways. For one person, it is the art, the art has saved them, the fact they could focus on something other than what they were going through.”

Her classes are filled with 25-30 students each week and she sees up to 80 people come through the program throughout the year.

 

After four years of battling cancer, Carrie Esau is cancer free. The Complementary Therapies Program has offered to her life something she never imagined possible, gratitude for the experience of cancer. Acknowledging such a sentiment must sound mad to someone on the outside, she explains what the program did for her. Esau, who lives in the Hughson-Denair area, began with the photography class. “It was a boost to my morale when I was asked to submit some pictures to be framed and hung in the Mistlin Art Gallery in Modesto. I was thrilled then to participate in a reception where there was a band and refreshments, friends and family. The experience was exciting challenging, opening her up to something she never would have participated in. Esau described the reception and experience as “glamorous.”

After that, she decided to try the writing class. “Write a letter to cancer” was the first exercise. “When I look back it was very pregnant and full of all kinds of emotion, the fear, the anger all of the uncertainties.” What could she say? “I’d hiked Half Dome the year before diagnosis, had gone skydiving on my birthday two months before diagnosis. There was shock, anger, fear.”

Three years later, she tried the class again, forgetting what the first night was. In her letter to cancer that time, she found she had “a whole different attitude because of all these positive things that had been going on.”

“The way I would sum up everyone there was a cancer survivor, we didn’t need to talk about health or treatments or how we felt there was an instant understanding, a camaraderie, even if we feel lousy we were still comfortable in those settings…For me it was a place I didn’t have to go get poked looked at no chemo no lab it wasn’t sterile, it was colorful it was expanding my horizons, I was developing some new interest new skills things I hated the cancer but I feel like for me personally, these were some new doors that, even though its Sutter Gould put on, those were things God opened to me to help me realize my life wasn’t just cancer. My life wasn’t over.”

Esau continues to participate. Her work is published in an anthology titled, “Time to Heal,” and her photographs have been used as promotional materials for Harvest of Hope.

“Strength” will be on display at Mistlin Fine Art Gallery in Modesto until November 9. It is made possible by a grant from Memorial Medical Center to the Central California Art Association.

Oak Valley Youth Garden Breaks Ground in Ripon

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch, April 2, 2019

 

Oak Valley Youth Garden broke ground at their new location Saturday, March 23, behind Studio Joy in Ripon.

In 2016, Sarah Darpinian spotted a photo posted on Instagram by Liz Schuiling of a lush, fairy-looking, garden in Washington State. “What is this magical place?” Darpinian asked.

 

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Photo by Val Vesa on Unsplash

 

 

The answer unveiled unexpected need she found in the community: a youth garden, run by a master gardener, where children could come for free and do crafts, garden and grow produce to be donated to local charities, connecting with the soil and their food for an educational and enriching experience.

According to Darpinian, she and Schuiling rented a couple of garden beds in Ripon’s Community Garden. For the first meeting, they planned to plant seeds and hoped to see a few local children attend. 70 children came that first Thursday morning. The seed of that first vision of Oak Valley Youth Garden sprung.

 

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Photo by Evie Shaffer on Unsplash

 

 

Darpinian explained, “It’s multifaceted: they learn where it comes from, how to grow it, and how to appreciate it. A lot of them haven’t tried swiss chard and kale. Then they say, ‘Oh, this is good and it’s fun to eat healthy. I grow it and I pick it and I share it.’ It’s a good process.”

 

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Photo by Johnny McClung on Unsplash

 

 

In 2017, they obtained non-profit status. To meet the demand, they rented additional beds, but after renting 8 beds, with more children coming, it was clear they had outgrown the space at the Community Garden.

When Darpinian and Schuiling heard that Jolene Peters, the owner of Studio Joy on Main Street, was looking to open a garden in the area behind the studio, Darpinian recalled, “we talked to them and realized we had similar goals to be a welcoming open space for anyone and everyone to come.”

The vision grew to include a space where children could run free, to use an outdoor kitchen for cooking demonstrations, a lawn alternative space where local artists can play music, where yoga or Pilates classes can be offered for the general community, possibly even host bridal showers, baby showers, or birthday parties, all culminating in “a warm, welcoming community space,” Darpinian said. She imagines children having picnics there, pizza nights, a place where the community can say, “Let’s go to the garden. It’s Thursday night: pizza night… The sky is the limit!”

 

With the help of Central Valley Sustainability owner, Cody Simar, designing the space, the waterworks and generating material lists for donations, Darpinian and Shuilling began seeking grants for this near-$35,000 project. Like all non-profits, Darpinian recognizes, progress is “at the mercy of money and volunteers.”

They are currently requesting donations of irrigation parts. After irrigation, they will build the garden boxes. “We can start once we have a couple of boxes and just grow and expand,” Darpinian said. “We hope a year from now we will be up and operational. We have to be realistic as well as optimistic.”

Part of the realism means digging in for a work day clearing the space, mowing knee-high grasses, trimming and removing existing trees.

 

The garden will serve those in Stanislaus and San Joaquin Counties. Each meeting brought an average of 50 to 60 children, with as many as 85 children attending on their busiest days. Most sessions included a lesson provided by a member from the community such as an entomologist, a farmer, and a nutritionist.

Darpinian’s motivation stems from the many angles the garden reaches out. “Thinking of how much fun my kids and the other kids have had out there [keeps me going]. We had some beautiful days out there where everyone is working together and picking tomatoes and making salsa, doing vegetable tastings, knowing we’re making an impact. I went and dropped off the food at St. Vincent de Paul. I saw the families waiting in line and they were excited to see fresh produce.”

In the two years since they began, the Oak Valley Youth Garden donated 800 pounds of produce to local food pantries. At their new location, they hope to increase that to 1000 pounds a year.

 

The Oak Valley Youth Garden will grow at 929 W. Main Street. Opportunities to give include donating materials, time and labor, sponsoring a brick ($150) with a tax-deductible donation and visiting their booth at the Farmer’s Market in the Studio Joy parking lot, May 2, May 16, May 30, June 14 and June 28th from 4—7pm.

 

To find out more, visit their website at www.OakValleyYouthGarden.weebly.com, as well as on Facebook and Instagram.

 

 

What to change the world? Tell a story.

February is Black History Month. At its conception in the 1920s, it was seen as an opportunity for African-Americans to learn and value the cultural and historical traditions of the African-American community existing in a broader community. Treasuring tradition and providing a historical narrative gives strength to a particular culture. It is now considered a time for those outside of African-American culture to understand and celebrate its richness.

Despite such good intentions, politics in our nation continue to be powerfully divisive, encouraging the “us-and-them” narrative. Both sides of the spectrum identify the villains across the fence. As long as we never meet them, never hear their stories, this should continue easily. Labels facilitate the process: North and South, Black and White, rich and poor, Christian and secularist, citizen and immigrant. Each label carries with it a tradition, a history and a visual held by the one in the group and a very different one outside the group. So long as we play on our own team, we can continue to identify this as a game with winners and losers. If they win, I lose. If I win, they lose. We usually do not gloat over their losses but see it as a necessary evil for the perpetuation of the greater good, that is, whatever is good to me.

In time for Black History Month, my book club read and discussed Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is known as a historically important book and a historically influential book, but even without formal study, I had a sense there was modern controversy surrounding this work. I dived in.

 

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Most striking to me, and the book club members, was the power of this work. The author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, is reportedly described by Abraham Lincoln, when he met her, as “the little lady who started this great war.”

In the novel, beautifully written, heartbreaking but hopeful, Stowe uses the story framework and characters to refute every argument in favor of slavery. The book works because the characters are good and bad. Slave owners are capable of changing but are sometimes too lazy or too selfish to do so. The subtle prejudices of those who preach against slavery are revealed and taken deeper. There are slaves whose characters are driven, determined, hopeless, resigned, or desperate. Their hearts are a mixture of good and bad, too.

Research indicates that reading literary fiction (literature that has stood the test of time as opposed to genre or popular fiction) can increase empathy. According to Scientific American, “Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships… This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom. Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.”

Sermons, rallies, social media posts, genre-works with preachy stereotypical characters who are good or bad (not both like normal humans) preach to the choir, as they say. It serves to strengthen those who already believe it.

In contrast, by storytelling, by making personal those with whom we see ourselves having little in common, to see them as human, can change hearts. Influenced by the portrayals in Stowe’s 19th-century bestseller, those on the fences could see the error in the beliefs that slavery could be tolerated, that it was enough to treat slaves well, that they were happier for it, or that one could position himself as against slavery but still recoil at integration.

Storytelling makes the “other” not so “other” anymore, but human. We have differences to be celebrated, but in the end, we are human. The person on the other side of the political, socioeconomic, or spiritual fence has just as valuable a story.

If you want to change the world, tell a story.

If it’s time to change your heart, read one.

HopeWriters Writing Prompts Continued…

Jan 19: Brainstorm – There are writers who plan extensively before they put words to a page. There are writers who sit down and let it pour out. In medio stat viritus, we learn from Aristotle, in the middle lies virtue. I lie in bed, stare at the mirror that reflects the outdoors beyond the window and I think of what I could write today. I create a short, mental list of the projects that need attention. I consider also the chores, the childcare, the leisure and the healthy habits. A brainstorm must be more than just, “what will I write?”, but “when will I write it?” Brainstorms sometimes occur in conjunction with others. I cannot launch a brilliant writing career without first making sure my husband knows he is in charge during that hour that I pound away on the computer. “How will we make this work?” may have been the most fruitful and productive conversation of my career.

Jan 20: Stuck – The best remedy when I am stuck is to go for a walk, to pray, to reconnect with my children, and take some time to think away from the computer, the pen, the pressure. The distractions of technology clog the neurological pathways making it difficult to think (in a manner of speaking). I must free them with nature, fresh air, and interior silence meant to ponder the mysteries of the universe. I only rarely feel stuck…and feeling stuck, usually says more about the state of my heart than the state of my writing.

Jan 21: Quote – The best news stories are built around the quotes with a little narrative in-between. Unlike non-fiction, reflection, “soul” writing, no one wants to hear your voice in a news story. They want the story, to enter into the moment and see it for themselves. Then you end with a moving quote, the emotional one, the one with hope, the one that makes the reader’s heart soar or ache just a little. Your voice is hidden but present, undetectable but essential. It is the writing that allows the subject to shine more than any other medium.

Jan 22: Inspiration – There is no inspiration without silence. There is no silence in this modern world without an intentional retreat. There are no intentional retreats in this world without some agreement from the community in which you live. There is no community without communication. From silence and communication come the greatest inspiration: communication with God, communication with others, communication with the heart.

Jan 23: Goal – My goal was to use these writing prompts every day. I find myself writing two a day to catch up. Did I fail? No. With all my projects, I begin with an idea. Then allow that idea to take shape. I might have a deadline. Whether or not an editor has one, I set a personal deadline. I could work four hours a day writing, editing, and four more hours a day reading. Instead, I’m working in the cracks to meet my goals, because whatever my love of writing, the goal to produce beautiful, meaningful words, will ultimately fail if I have abandoned my first vocation in the process. The path to achieving goals is not set in stone but takes shape each turn of the way. I used to believe in SMART goals, now I just believe in walking the path, with a hopeful idea of where I am going.

Writing Prompt, Day 11: Feeling – I held my toddler down on the hospital bed while they tried to place an IV four times, over 12 hours. I felt the fear and worry dissipate like the clouds of incense when he passed out of danger. I felt the excitement of heading home, the frustration at screaming toddlers, the rest of climbing under heavy winter covers. To all these feelings, writing seems but a dream, a place to explore the heartache, to dwell in a world of craft, of words. It feels safe, rewarding, and exciting. It is not the world in which I get to live…yet…or maybe, ever. Because those feelings are not the feeling of life. It is life that hurts and triumphs. Writing merely tells about it.

Writing Prompt, Day 12: Progress – Progress? Progress? I defied you, Progress, by simply dropping off this exercise at Day 11. It felt good to neglect something when the rest of my life feels so responsible. I sacrificed the writing. Do I win in the end? Time will tell. I still met my other deadlines and even meal planned for the day. Still a win.

Discover the Possibilities

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch

 

In college, I grew antsy during my husband’s orchestral performances. I watched the conductor perform, but preferred those mediums in which my eyes found a place to rest. With a substandard back and longer than usual legs, I found most theater chairs, even during performances of great showmen like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy left me shifting in my seat. Watching Itzhak Perlman seemed a treat for my husband, and consistent with my ideals of self-education. When someone or something is considered masterful and legendary, this is usually a reason worth exploring. So we went.

I did not know about Perlman other than, I admit, hearing his name and seeing him in the film “Music of the Heart” when my parents got the Starz channel during my adolescence. My husband said our son’s doctor looked like Perlman.

The lights lowered, and onto the stage, a 73-year-old man wearing all black, seated on an Amigo scooter, rolled briskly out. The program stated he had polio as a child. Holding his violin, he lifted each foot to the ground, nodded at his accompanist, and began to play.

The first piece might have been fifteen minutes long. Throughout the multiple movements, we were spellbound, transfixed by a purity of sound I had never before encountered, especially with the violin, which in most hands I witnessed seems to scratch a little.

He played, then drove off stage. The crowd chatted amongst themselves, our amazement growing. Upon his returned, Perlman said not a word but went straight to his work.

An hour passed. It felt brief.

After the intermission, he joked with the audience. Perlman’s humor and warmth were attested to in the program. We saw it delivered.

The silence of the Rogers theater, as this seated man played, drew us into a world of beauty. Even now, I can still recall it and place myself back in that state. In those moments, this virtuoso took us into the great capability of music and violin. It was not a matter of what man can do to nature, but what can be discovered in nature when we approach the material with reverence and humility.

We want to manipulate and distort, create something for mass market appeal. Here this box of wood and string, with a band of horsehair, transforms us.

In my life, I feel the same with words. I cringe at the play, manipulating this and that word to serve the entrepreneur (Bevmo!) or spelling (Toys r Us).

It is with language that we translate and communicate our thoughts. With the best word you can communicate exactly what shade of blue you saw, how the chair felt, the type of sorrow you experience.

We cannot discover it if we do not see it as a thing worthy of our respect. Language does not serve us, but rather we have a responsibility to transmit the traditions of beauty in language to future generations.

Some individuals like to pick a word of the year or a theme. For me, this is the year of the poem, and I am reading Love Poems by Elizabeth and Robert Browning. She was experimental in her style, but not as we might see in a postmodern art scene. The poems rhyme, and how they rhyme!

“I sit beside the gravestone thus/and wish the name was carved for us”

I took the same fascination with Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical, “Hamilton.”

“Congress writes, ‘George, attack the British forces./I shoot back, we have resorted to eating our horses.”

Rather than altering the words to fit the purpose, the debt we owe is to discover the potential with language as it is before we begin manipulating it. That might mean, reading old things, watching old plays, but it also means discovering the incredible new creations of our day (like “Hamilton”).

Perlman played Bach and he played John Williams. Before we were ready, the recital ended and Perlman exited stage right. We may probably never see him again in person. I treasure it as the greatest musical experience I have ever had: a violin and a piano, not out to change the world, but celebrate its possibilities.

 

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