Saturday, July 13, 2019

five days at moss rock retreat

Stephen and I don't give each other presents as a rule. We used to get together and, in a joint venture, buy some movies on DVD, but in recent years we haven't even done that. But this year, I turned fifty, and he gave me something special. A five-day writing retreat in a tiny house, all by myself, just me and my book, at Moss Rock Retreat.

Oh my gosh, what luxury. I've written through a couple drafts of the novel, have done a lot of workshopping, which tends to make you see your book in bite-sized pieces. So I printed the entire thing and took it with me. For the first three days, I read and made notes. Tried not to stop the forward momentum by doing too much editing, just jotted down what needed to be done, and then after I'd read through, I started back at the beginning and edited according to those notes, on computer.

I loved the experience and the place so much that I wanted to share some pictures and some details. Writers in and around Portland, Moss Rock Retreat is right here in Portland, within walking distance of the lovely Leach Botanical Gardens as well as a wetlands trail that I took on the second day while taking a break from my work. It's a tiny house in the middle of a gorgeous garden, and it has all the amenities so you can just hang out and work.

The reason for the name. Here's what owner Virginia Bellis Brandabur says about it:

We're calling the tiny house "Moss Rock Retreat" after the big boulder that can be seen from the porch. It's one of the boulders created 1.6 million years ago from the Mt. Scott shield volcano eruption. Half a century ago, the city dug up the boulder from under the street when they put waterlines into this neighborhood. Now it's one of my favorite things in the yard.

The tiny house! It has this sweet little porch. Sometimes I brought my work out onto the porch and sometimes after a day of working or editing I'd come out onto the porch and just relax.

At the end of the tiny house, inside, is a little writing desk where I set up my computer when I first arrived (although I moved it around a lot). There's wifi access, which was great because I was working through some logistics in my novel and was happy to be able to have access to information.

On the other end is a little kitchen with refrigerator and freezer (good sized), sink, oven, stove and dishwasher. There was everything I needed to cook and eat on, pots and pans, utensils, cups and glasses. There was olive oil and salt and pepper. They left me some eggs in the fridge from their chickens! And if you look to the left in the above picture: yes, that's a washing machine. I was amazed at what they fit in this place.

They left me flowers!

Appropriate coffee cup.

Oh, there was coffee and tea and things to brew them in. And amazing knives. Towels, pillows, extra blankets, all the things.

A tiny library with both good things to read and good reference books for writers.

Here's some tiny house ingenuity: storage drawers built into the stairs leading up to the sleeping loft. One thing to note: I was the first visitor to Moss Rock Retreat, as they were still in the process of getting things up and running. As you can see, the steps currently don't have a railing. Owners Virginia and Matthew are in communications with a woodworker to create the best type of railing for the space and aesthetic of the house. They're continuing to improve the space as writers provide them with feedback on their experience.

I have to say, I holed up in the tiny house for much of the retreat, sunk deep in my book. But I did take a walk along the wetlands trail one day and I did spend some time out in the garden that surrounds the tiny house. It's quite a large garden you can maze your way through, with a bunny hutch, a vegetable garden, lots of beautiful flowers and trees, and a very friendly cat.

And chickens!

I found this sweet little out-of-the-way spot to set up and work for a while.

The view from there: sky with butterfly.

I was joined by this guy. His name is Comb-over.

The owners of Moss Rock Retreat, Virginia Bellis Brandabur and Matthew Brandabur (and their two great kids!) were lovely and accommodating. They made me a sweet hand-made map to the wetlands trail. Alone in the tiny house, it felt good to have the family nearby and accessible should I need anything (I was also car-less for the week) but they gave me my privacy and would text when they were going out for the day in case I felt shy of wandering the grounds when anyone might be around. One night there was a huge storm and the power went out in the neighborhood for a couple hours. They brought me tea candles and an electric lantern and I relaxed with one of the books from their library.

In the end, not only had I done a whole lot of work on my book, but I'd had a lovely experience in a special place. I highly recommend it for writers wanting to get away and really commune with your work. If you want more information, you can email them at Or visit their Facebook page at

By the way, Virginia Bellis Brandabur is also one of the hosts of the Lilla Lit literary series that happens at Leach Botanical Gardens. If you're lit-minded in or near Portland, it's definitely something to check out. I loved their spring event, and will be reading, actually, at their summer event, on August 18th. More info on the series is here.

Home. Time to unpack.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

a moment in the day: fourth

It's the Fourth of July and we're in the little upstairs bathroom. Nicholas and I. Sitting on the floor with the loud bathroom fan on and the door closed. I'm sitting on an old cushion from the couch we no longer have, Nicholas on my lap, my laptop open beside us blaring music. I pet him and sing along.

I'm going to Kansas City 
Kansas City, here I come. 
I'm going to Kansas City 
Kansas City, here I come. 
They got some swingin' little fellas 
And I'm going to get me one.

Peggy Lee's version. 

It's my best defense against the war zone of neighborhood Fourth of July bombs bursting all Francis-Scott-Key outside. When I first moved in, I hated that you couldn't turn on the light in this bathroom without this loud fan coming on, but it's been indispensable for Fourth of Julys and the occasional thunderstorm. We got started in here around seven when the accumulation of pops and bangs started to get Nicholas agitated. I found an old Sherlock Holmes movie on Youtube and we were watching it together, until the sounds outside ramped up and a film wasn't cutting it anymore. That, and Inspector Lestrade and Professor Moriarty started trading gunfire, undermining my whole diversion plan in the first place. That's when we turned to the music. 

It's eleven now, no signs of a let-up anytime soon. Nicholas on my lap stares at the closed bathroom door, then settles down with his chin on my leg, closes his eyes, then head up again to stare at the door. Sometimes I can't even hear the pops that make it through the wall of sound I've created in here, but Nicholas is ever on alert. We hear a little burst and he starts panting. I pet him and sing. 

Might take a train, 
Might take a plane, 
If I have to walk I'm going all the same. 
I'm going to Kansas City 
Kansas City, here I come. 

It occurs to me that I didn't eat dinner. My butt on the couch cushion is a slab of slate. 

The song winds up to its climax and I go in for the big finish. Nicholas isn't impressed but at least he's distracted. But then the wailing trumpets die down and we can hear the fireworks again, and Nicholas' head comes up off my lap. He looks at me, distressed and starts panting. Youtube is randomly choosing the next video to play but it's not a Peggy Lee song, it's some video clip from the old game show What's My Line, and that ain't gonna cut it. Quick I reach to the little touch pad on my laptop, because I wasn't smart enough to bring the mouse, hunting around for something else I know the words to. 

I don't know from Spotify.

Nicholas starts to move around on my lap like he's looking for a place to hide. Panting. Pops and bangs through the hum of the fan. I grab the first Peggy Lee song I find that I haven't already played. I click go and the music starts again. Horns and drums. I start to sing. 

The minute you walked in the joint 
I could see you were a man of distinction, 
A real big spender. 
Good looking, so refined. 
Say, wouldn't you like to know 
What's going on in my mind? 
So, let me get right to the point. 
I don't pop my cork for every guy I see.

Nicholas stops panting, settles. He puts his chin on my lap and closes his eyes.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Book Cover: Sparks

Not long ago a friend posed the question on Facebook, do you have a bucket list and what's on it. And I realized I have a book cover bucket list. By the time I die, I'd like to have had the chance to make covers for all the different kinds of books there are in the world. Well, that may be a little unrealistic. How about: as close to that as possible.

So I was very excited when, not long after, I was contacted to do a cover for a genre of book I'd never done before: a romance.

Sparks by Maren Anderson was first nutshelled to me as "a rural romance with a healthy splash of magic." Here's how we describe it on the back cover of the book:

Rosie wants to tear down the ancient cowshed on her ranch to make room for more horses, but it is unlucky to knock down a barn. Rosie thinks this is superstitious hogwash. That’s why she and her very cute new boarder, Patrick, get drunk one night and knock the shed down with the tractor, unleashing something very dark and very angry.

It was that something dark and angry that Maren was interested in capturing for the cover of the book. She shared this passage with me:

One picture stopped her. It was old and crude, but unmistakable. There was a barn. There was a man whipping a cow. There was a monster crawling out from under the barn, claws extended, heading for the man from behind.

A shiver danced down Rosie's back.

The caption beneath the picture stopped swimming and resolved itself into a word she recognized.


Maren asked if I could recreate, in imagery, the woodcut she'd created in words. I loved that challenge. I immersed myself in historical images of woodcuts and came up with this. I presented it as both a simple image that we could add color to (not to mention title, author, that kind of thing) and, mostly for fun, as a pure woodcut, on old paper, the ink worn with age.

Maren wrote back:

I LOVE THIS. You gave me exactly what I asked for. I want a big print to hang in my office.

But it's not right for the cover. :(

Sometimes you need to see what you want, to know... you don't want it.

Seeing her idea come to life made her realize she needed something different. We'd been playing with the "healthy splash of magic" part and not the "rural romance" part of the novel. She wrote:

It needs horses and pastels and romance on the cover. (But not six-packs and headless female torsos. You know what I'm talking about. I hate that.)

Which, as an aside, brought me back to my bucket list. I'd illustrated monsters before. But not romance and, come to think of it, not horses.

One other element Maren put out to me was filigree. She said what about a close-up image of a horse head but with the woodcut "sprite" worked into a filigree around it. My initial thought was, no, that won't work, because the woodcut sprite is chunky, crude, and filigree wants to be delicate. But then the challenge of making it work took over.

I played with various horses and horse heads, different types of filigree, I tried to work in various couples, to put romance front and center, but in the end, the direction Maren and her publisher, Ben of Not a Pipe Publishing, chose contained an extreme closeup of a horse face with the romance showing, not in, say, an illustration of two people embracing or holding hands, but a tiny heart worked into the shine of the eye.

They wanted to try various color schemes and to keep the text all one color, so I gave them a bunch of variations...

In the end, this is what they chose.

You can preorder the book here. Info about publisher Not a Pipe Publishing is here.

Here's an excerpt:

Patrick was due “first thing in the morning,” in his words. When he pulled up in a white pickup, Rosie — already done with morning chores — was sitting on her porch with Bobby, her hands wrapped around a mug of coffee, enjoying the warm steam as much as the hot drink. He hopped out, smiling, and strode over to her, hand extended. “Hiya! I’m Patrick!”

Rosie stood and shook his hand. “Hi, yourself,” she said. Then she handed him the other mug of coffee steaming beside her and sat down again.

He stood a moment with the mug and then sat one step below her. He rubbed Bobby, and the dog nearly died in ecstasy. Patrick took a sip. “Nice place you’ve got here.”

Rosie smiled into her drink. “Thanks.”

Patrick didn’t seem to know what to do next, so he fondled her dog. “What’s your name, buddy?”

“That’s Bobby,” Rosie said.

“Bobby’s a handsome boy.” Patrick smiled at Bobby and scrubbed him at the base of his tail.

Bobby groaned, and his tongue lolled out and hung to his knees.

“You found his favorite spot,” Rosie said. “It looks like you’ve got the magic touch.”

“Maybe I do,” he said. “I like animals.”

She stood and stretched a little. “I assume you want a tour?”

“Okay. Yes.”

Rosie strode off the porch toward the horse barn, mug in hand. Patrick, Bobby close at his heels, followed, but when they passed the falling-down shed, he stopped and blinked.

“You don’t keep animals in there, do you?” he asked.

“Not on your life,” Rosie said. She stood next to him as they regarded the shed together. She noticed that they were nearly the same height, she five four, he maybe five six. His haircut made her suspicious of a military background, but it wasn’t so short that she couldn’t see that he had been blond as a child. She decided there was something both old and decidedly young about him.

He looked at her, and his gray eyes smiled. “What kind of ghosties live in there?” he asked.

Rosie smiled back. “I don’t know. I’ve been trying to bring myself to tear it down for a while. I need the space for a round pen. Something always comes up, though.” She let her gaze return to the shed. Today it looked as though it were trying to push the oak tree out of its way. She shrugged and turned.

Patrick, with Bobby trotting at his heels, followed her to the twenty-stall barn slash indoor arena that had been Rosie and Ben’s pride and joy. It had taken them years to scrape enough together to buy the materials for the barn, and then it had taken months and every favor from every friend they ever had to put it up. The ordeal never seemed like work, though, Rosie told herself.


“Come into my office,” Rosie said. He followed her into the tack room. On the back wall, nearly hidden among a wall of English and Western saddles, Rosie pushed open a door and went into her office. It was a weird setup, but she kind of liked the hidden nature of the room. It felt like a little safe, hidey-hole.

She had turned on the electric space heater before she had started chores, so it was toasty warm inside. She re-filled her mug of coffee from the coffee maker and topped off Patrick’s, too. Patrick sat in the chair in front of her desk, and Rosie noticed that Bobby ignored both the ratty sofa and his soft dog bed in front of the heater, instead flopping at Patrick's feet. Patrick smiled and rubbed the dog's back with his toe.

Rosie sat behind her desk and forced herself to smile warmly at the handsome novice on the other side of her desk.

“Now, what exactly do you think I can do for you?”

“Well, I bought this horse,” he began.

“Yes, tell me about that.”

Patrick shifted a little in his seat. “I was thinking about buying a horse for a while, you know, since I’ve been back, in fact, so I went to an auction.”

Rosie cursed in her head. An auction horse? “And?”

“And there was this guy in the parking lot.”

“Oh.” Rosie set her mug down.

“I know I shouldn’t have bought her on the spot, but she is so beautiful, and we have a real connection.”

“Did you at least ride her first?” Rosie asked, fingers crossed.

“No. I’m too new. I wouldn’t know from straight up. But I watched him ride her. She seemed sound.”

“And where is she now?”

“My Aunt Nan lives outside of town on an acre.”

“And the only shelter is a tree?”

“Yeah. It’s been kind of cold this week, too.”

Rosie picked up her long braid and began plaiting the loose hairs on the other side of the rubber band. Finally, she sighed. “Okay. You have a horse. Now what can I do for you?”

“I like your place,” Patrick said. “I like how clean it is. I like how you treat your horse. I’d like to bring Sunny here.”


“And I’d like full board, lessons for me, and training for her.”

Rosie chewed on her lip.

“What’s the problem?” Patrick said. The brightness was gone. “I can pay you for your services.”

“That’s not it,” Rosie said. “I am happy to take your money. I am happy to give you lessons and train your horse, but I need one condition from you.”


“You have to promise me that you’ll sell the horse if I tell you that she’s going to kill you.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“The only way that I’ll take you on is if you will trust me enough to sell the horse if I tell you that she’s too wild and is going to kill you. If you don’t promise, or don’t sell the horse, I’ll evict the both of you.”

They regarded each other a moment before Patrick nodded and said, “Yes, Ma’am,” without a hint of sarcasm.

That was the first time Rosie thought that they might be able to work together.

Bobby interrupted the moment by thrusting his head under Patrick’s hand. He laughed and rubbed the happy dog’s ears. Rosie sat back with her mug and smiled.

“You’re one of the chosen,” she said. “Bobby is wary of new people.”

“Oh, I have a way with animals,” Patrick said. “Always have.”

Rosie watched him rub Bobby into a drooling coma, and she didn’t doubt it. It reminded her of other men and different dogs. She swallowed the lump in her throat and said the first thing that flew into her head.

“Where did you come back from?”

“Huh? Oh, Iraq. The first one and the second.” He was scratching Bobby’s chest and the dog was orgasmic, but Patrick was perceptively more tense. “Retired Army. As a civilian I’m working as an analyst at HP in Corvallis.” He sighed, then half-smiled which made his eyes crinkle. “I’m looking to forget the Middle East, you know?”

As Patrick signed the boarding agreement, Rosie wondered where the idiot who had bought a horse in a parking lot had gone. Who was this man? Patrick was suddenly interesting.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

a moment in the day: dark

It's late, and the dark of the tiny house where I'm having my writing retreat is broken by the glows of tea candles placed in the centers of plates, and one Coleman lantern sitting on the kitchen counter.

The power's been off since sevenish all over the neighborhood because of one big whoop-up of a storm that happened to hit just as Stephen was arriving to take me out on a date night for dinner. Now, after salade and champignons and wine and crème brûlée and pot au chocolat, after the promise from PGE that the power will be back on by 9:30, by 11:15, by 3:00, and with Stephen heading home to Nicholas, I lie back on the little padded bench where I've been doing my work. Not sure what to do now. I'm a little too awake to go to sleep.

I quick get up and blow out the tea candles, leaving the lantern on to light the room. Back at the little bench, I lie back and open the book I took from the tiny house's library. The Mercy of the Tide by Keith Rosson.

What if they don't get the power back on? What if lightning hit something important and they can't get it up and running again and I have to leave my lovely retreat early, I mean, I didn't even get to make my pizza.

I get back to reading. His language is dense and rich. It's interesting to read someone else's book when you've been immersed in your own language for a long, concentrated time. I read aloud:

"But for now it was winter and the beach was mostly empty. The dogs, like the tourists, were mostly gone, though unlike the tourists, they still made the occasional appearance on the off-season, these half-starved revenants seen trotting down along the surf at night or in the mist of a brushed-steel dawn, snouts pressed to the ground in search of some elusive scent, the ghost of old gustatory riches."

As I read aloud in the lanternlit shadows, where I've been poring and poring over my own writing, my brain thinks, but could I ever write something as real and beautiful as that?

"Toad stood nearby absently drawing gigantic penises—"

And, yes, that's when the power comes on.

I see it in the snap of a red light under the desk where the wifi lives. I don't want to believe it without proof. Maybe that thing runs on battery or something and I just didn't notice it until now. So I put down the book, step forward into the tiny bathroom—the first thing I think to do—and press a button. Whoosh! The electric toilet is working! Huzzah, we're back in business.

Friday, June 21, 2019

a moment in the day: chase

It’s ten o’clock. I’m letting Nicholas out one last time. I stand just beyond the open doorway as he trots out into the backyard and sniffs at the grass under the white glow of paper lanterns hanging from the studio roof.

Now, something catches his eye. Nicholas takes off, running. His furious high-pitched barking chases something across the shadowy yard. It’s a small, white spot, bright in the reflected glow of the security lamp, and it flies just above Nicholas’ head.

My automatic “Hey-hey-hey!” (which I’m sure the neighbors appreciate as much as the barking) cuts off as the bright little spot Nicholas is chasing bobs up, sweeps in an arc overhead, and comes tracing back toward me, before it—blink—disappears altogether.

My immediate thought: Nicholas was chasing a fairy.

Across the lawn, Nicholas has done what he’s going to do and he’s running to me, now, and I know that probably what really happened is that he saw a squirrel on the fence, took off after it, and the glowing spot of magic was just a bug flying in the air in the middle of the yard in a way that, at my angle, at my distance, made it look like Nicholas was chasing it.

I'm still going with fairy.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Guest post: Nancy Townsley

For my birthday this year, my writer friend Nancy Townsley composed me a moment piece like the ones I write for my blog. I was so honored, I asked if I could share it here. 

With big thanks to a great writer and lovely woman.


Up and over the bridge, green-gray spires reaching for the sky, that funny color I remember from the waste cans in elementary school.

Right on Syracuse, right on Burlington, left on Willamette, right on Greeley. Then I’m home free until I get to the freeway.

I’m driving through St. Johns on my way to writing group, on a day that will be hot, 95 degrees. Sweet quaint St. Johns, situated on a bluff above Portland’s industrial district. An academic community. Home to the University of Portland.

And I spy with my little eye so many interesting things.

A tall water tower-reservoir, about the same dull, light green-gray shade as the bridge.

An elderly man (elderly as in 80 or better) out watering his lawn with an old-fashioned hose. He does not look happy about this.

Right next door, underground sprinklers erupting with sprays of water like much smaller versions of the fountains on the strip in Las Vegas.

Home after eclectic home boasting framed stained glass in windows and the arches of breezeways. The best one is a bird of paradise bursting with oranges and reds and yellows.

A road worker waving a stop sign in full sun-protection regalia—bandana, hard hat, mirrored shades—at 9:30 in the morning.

Near the place where you could actually fall into the river there is a sign saying “Danger, keep back from edge.” Check. OK. Got it.

The most beautiful thing, too: A stately old Victorian manse, fallen into disrepair, is being renovated by someone, I imagine, who has a love for old things. Also, a whole lot of money. The home is all white wooden curlicues and sash windows and peeling lavender paint. It is up on blocks, ready for its facelift.

There is a large pink paper heart in the biggest window at the front.

And I think, we all need a little help like that, a friend or even a benefactor who will raise us up when we fall, when we creak, when we start to show cracks.

Second chances, and thirds.



If you'd like to read more of Nancy's work, check out her page on Role Reboot here

Sunday, June 16, 2019

a moment in the day: short story

I'm up before six, sitting at the computer. In a few minutes I'll have to run down to wake Stephen up and then in about forty-five minutes, we'll leave to pick my parents up at the hotel and take them to the airport after a glorious three-day birthday visit of eating and talking and eating and talking.

I'm reading a random short story in an online literary journal. This strikes me as strange, suddenly. That my mind is on something other than their impending departure. That I'm not sitting here pining in advance of the leaving.

I've been known to pine in advance to crazy degrees. Like for the weeks leading up to the visit. Every night, dreaming that I'm in California visiting them, or they're in Portland visiting me, and it's the last night, and tomorrow they'll be gone.

Sometimes I have the goodbye dream when no trip is even on the horizon. Sometimes night after night for a ridiculous number of nights. I get why I was so obsessed in my early adulthood, when I really didn't love my life on the road, and coming home to visit family was the big bright spot in my year, but it's weird to finally have a life I really like and still pine so hard for that other home.

This short story is organized into bite-sized pieces jumping forward and backward through time. The family is like mine: a mom, a dad, two sisters and a brother. Except that they fight all the time.

Weirdly, I didn't even have the dream last night, on the last night. Is that what being fifty is like? Have I finally, finally grown up?

I realize it's after six, so I run down quick to go into the bedroom and turn off the sound machine and stop Stephen's soft snoring. Forty-five minutes, and we'll leave to take them to the airport. I go back upstairs and sit back down in front of the computer. I finish the short story. I don't know why the ending makes me cry.