Writing on the California Zephyr

The Pfizer vaccine clinched it for me. I’d been stir crazy in my 470-square-foot studio, so I used my Amtrak points to book a roundtrip ticket on the California Zephyr from Davis, CA, to Chicago for spring break. I got this idea after I noticed how Amtrak was advertising these little rooms as a great way to travel during the pandemic. They’ll bring you your food. Masks are enforced in the public areas. They’ve worked on their air filtration system. I spotted an ad with a person sitting with a laptop in a roomette, and the writer in me said, Yes! I’d been wrangling with a 450-page novel manuscript throughout the year of COVID and was ready to move into some concentrated work on the project. As the trip drew closer, I began to waffle—worrying I’d be making a huge mistake. Then California opened their vaccine list to educators, and I inadvertently received my doses in time for the trip. 

I boarded the train feeling nervous, though I quickly settled into the routine. I could lock my door, shut the curtain, and remove my mask. I enjoyed a few hours of scenery. Then I pulled out my laptop. The pressure cooker that is a roomette on a long Amtrak journey proved to be no joke for me. I wrote for hours during my seven day trip (two nights on the rails, two nights in Chicago, and two nights on the rails). My level of focus ratcheted up—I felt like I was in a bubble. Needless to say, the novel is not completely finished, but it is close. For me, this is no small feat as I’ve been grappling with this manuscript since 2002. I plan to give it a final polish over the summer before moving on to the pitching process.

Our COVID laden world did present some challenges. No surprise there. When I arrived at Union Station in downtown Chicago on a Saturday afternoon, I noticed most businesses were closed. The walk .2 mile walk to my hotel felt safe enough, though eerie. There weren’t many folks out and about, not even homeless ones. I took this as a sign I should continue working on my manuscript in my hotel room. I did have a ticket to The Art Institute of Chicago for Sunday. This allowed me to check off one item on my bucket list. I managed to track down a Chicago style pizza at Giordano’s (another checkmark). I’d wanted to see Lake Michigan but decided I shouldn’t roam too far.

Thus the trip proved to be a solo experience, one that put me in a meditative state of mind. Did I mention the California Zephyr rolls along a most scenic route? Deserts, snow-capped mountains, forests, rivers, and streams. I didn’t experience much boredom until day 6 after I’d written for about six hours. I imbibed in a glass of wine. Then a moment of crankiness overtook me. I was stiff and sick of sitting. I looked out the window to note the sun going down on a Utah desert. This most spectacular sunset—ending with a red sky above, the black silhouettes of quirky land formations below—pulled me back into the journey.

One takeaway from the adventure was the realization I was doing my own testing of the efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine. It felt good to begin facing the world, though I did not act normally. I wore my mask in public. I frequently used hand sanitizer and wipes. I didn’t talk to many people. I felt sadness over that last point, because during prior Amtrak trips, I’d nattered with all sorts of folks. Still, I found myself loosening my COVID prevention tactics. For example, I shared a bathroom with other passengers in the sleeper car, which made me feel uptight the first day or two. At some point, I stopped thinking about it. And on the trip out, I received all of my meals in my roomette. On the trip back, I decided to take a few of these meals in the dining car. As an FYI, the dining car practices social distancing by making use of only half their seating. And they don’t seat more than one party together as they do under normal circumstances. Needless to say, on the final day of the trip, I decided I’d left some COVID fears behind. I will do what I’m asked to do in terms of social distancing as America works through this, but I feel ready to move forward.

My COVID-19 Novel

My COVID novel—probably chick lit (and not about COVID-19)—is a project I’ve been wrestling with since 2002. 2002 is misleading from an “amount of time spent writing” standpoint. I’ve probably put 5 to 7 part-time years into the draft I’m working on right now. The rest of the time, the project languished in storage, lost (but that’s another story). 

During the fall of 2019, I tracked down the manuscript and began organizing a new draft. I was happily writing away last March when my community college district released me to do reference librarian work from home. This afforded me more time to write as I no longer needed to commute. I could no longer encounter distractions out in the world.

So when we first went into the stay-at-home debacle, I thought, “Great! Maybe now I’ll finish this thing.” I kept chipping away during the traumatic months of 2020. Over the summer, I received honest critique from three generous readers, though not without experiencing a good dose of inner drama over what was said. I worked through all of their notes, deciding which ones I should pay attention to, which ones I should chuck. My latest draft has a whole new structure, one I’m beginning to like. Needless to say, the manuscript has prevented me from being bored. 

Just this month my storytelling inched its way to the apex of an important hump. In other words, it feels like I’ve finally gotten the story. What is left is myriad details, not to mention polishing and pulling a number of strands into a coherent whole. (I think I can. I think I can.) I’ve been passive-aggressive toward this project from day one—I’m still not sure I can nail it. Yet new optimism began to poke me last weekend when an important section fell into place.

This is not to say there isn’t plenty left to do. I suspect I won’t have a strong draft till fall. Still, a couple of weeks ago, I dreaded every writing session. I would force myself to sit down and write for two hours at a time. Period. While I can sometimes go into the zone and write for hours, I have to impose this sort of structure on the process when I feel such resistance rearing its ugly head. Lo and behold, new chapters began to emerge until I moved through what had been scaring me. This is not to say I’m not scared. 

These days I can’t wait to get my hands on the manuscript. I feel the urge to tinker—and tinker some more. I’m certain I’ll enjoy moving this story into its final draft. I will cheer out loud when my pile of chapters morphs into such an entity. This project has become the albatross that almost went into the bin. Now I expect to print out a clean copy by the end of 2021. I expect to get on with the business of selling the darn thing.

Health in the New Year

With the rain coming down on my Oregon Coast cabin on New Year’s Day, I’ve been excused from the daily walk I’ve been trying to get in since we first went into lockdown last March. I do walk most days. I’ve been taking yoga again after an absence of over twenty years. Though I’ve tried to jumpstart my defunct practice more than once, I couldn’t get a regular rhythm going until 2020 began rocking and bucking last spring. I’ve been meditating most days. I joined a Zen center last February and was enjoying regular sessions in an in-person zendo when the lockdown forced us to close. The regular schedule was moved online. While Zoom Zen is not the same as sitting in a zendo, the regular contact with other Zen students in cyberspace has anchored my life in a significant way. To sum it all up: the world has been irrevocably altered due to the global pandemic. Yet this health crisis has strengthened my health habits. 

Full disclosure: I’m probably drinking a little more alcohol than I normally do, though I try to keep the reins on that. I enjoy takeout coffee on some walks. Actually, takeout meals have become something to live for. I save this pleasure for my last online work shift of the week. Takeout. Wine. Netflix. I’ve engaged in other potentially detrimental behavior. Though I’ve been religious about wearing a mask in public, I’ve spent time in a campsite with a friend who lives in another household—we both finally dropped our masks and camped together normally after a few masked hours (though we did put on our masks whenever we were around others). Indeed, I’ve embarked on a number of road trips, particularly to this Oregon Coast cabin. AirBnb hosts at stops along the way have super been friendly. I’ve imbibed in one backpacking trip in Mount Lassen National Park. I’m pretty sure a couple of bears roamed around my tent at night. While I survived their explorations, the park closed that very area to backpackers a few weeks later (due to aggressive bears).

I’ve got another risky activity on my schedule. I didn’t want to lose the Amtrak miles that had been piling up from too much credit card use, so I’ve booked a sleeper for a three-day journey to Chicago in late March. Amtrak claims their air filtration system has been beefed up. They’re cleaning everything—that’s what they say. And they do encourage sleeper guests to take advantage of room service in lieu of sitting in the dining car with other passengers. I figure I’ll be alone most of the time in my own little room, so this couldn’t be too hazardous. I’ll bring wipes and hand sanitizer. And I can always cancel if the COVID numbers remain daunting. Yet I hope I feel safe enough to hop on board. I’m feeling the need to stare out the window and watch my country move past me. I want to meditate on America’s landscape, horizons I’ve never seen, and let the muse whisper in my ear. 

I want this to be a better year.   

Beginning Backpacking Post Breast Cancer

Backpacking Gear in the Car

When one is facing an unexpected health crisis, the mind’s descent into some worst case scenario is but a few steps. During breast cancer treatment, I envisioned a number of sobering possibilities for my future, one of which was focused on backpacking. 

To back up a bit, preparations for my last backpacking trip b4 breast cancer inspired me to write an ode to ultralight gear (Bringing Down the Weight). During the spring of 2015, I probably dropped over $1000 as I collected the sort of equipment that would allow an older woman to backpack in, well… more comfort. That summer I spent a fabulous week on the John Muir Trail backpacking with friends. It wasn’t long before I had another trip in the works, this one focused on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. Unbeknown to me, however, a tumor was growing in my left breast. 

Breast cancer treatment threw my life into a tailspin. During those moments when my body felt the weakest, I wondered if I’d ever use any of that expensive gear again. This thought really got to me. It niggled at me. It made me wonder, “Why me?” “What a waste!”

Ringing the "I'm done!" bell in the radiation oncology unit at UCSD Medical.

Fortunately, most of my strength returned after I rang that final bell in the radiation oncology unit. Over time, I began working out again, hiking even. I got in a couple of car camping trips. Then last summer I committed to backpacking for the first time since treatment, a three-night trek along the Lost Coast in California. Yet when the trip fell through because we were all too busy, I actually felt relieved. I also felt guilty over not unpacking that wonderful equipment. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure where all this gear was. I hadn’t touched it in four years.

Entrance to Mission Creek Preserve

Not long after I bailed on the Lost Coast trip, my friend, Pam Kersey, badgered me into taking a class she co-teaches with Robin Balch through the Desert Institute at Joshua Tree National Park: Beginning Backpacking for Women in Mission Creek Preserve. Though I’m not really a beginner, I said yes, thinking I could have some quality time with Pam and some other interesting women. I did spend quality time with these said women, but I also discovered a few things.

First of all, enrollment in this class forced me to track down all the essentials. I found myself hauling my backpack to REI, so they could remind me how it all fit together. I fingered my Big Agnes tent, wondering if I would remember how to set it up. Did my Jetboil stove still work? Did I need a bear canister? (Bear warnings came with the informational literature supplied by the Desert Institute.) Finally, though I had my SteriPen handy, we weren’t guaranteed a water supply out there. When it came time to hit the trail, I saddled up with more than four liters of water in my backpack, pondering one final question: how would I do carrying 41 pounds?

The trip proved to be gentle in some respects. The actual backpacking portion was only an overnight, though we did camp the night before. This gave us a chance to go over our gear, try things out, and discuss what should actually go with us–what should be left behind. Once we started walking, packs and all, we had a tentative goal of covering five miles. Tentative was the word. Robin insisted from the get-go, we would do what made sense for the group. 

The day proved to be pretty warm, yet I felt capable. As I hiked, emotions spiked more than once. I wasn’t wasting my gear any longer. Maybe backpacking would become a regular activity for me. I mulled over that earlier Lost Coast possibility. “Maybe next summer.”

Scenery in the desert

Sometime later, a few people began overheating, so we decided to stop at three miles and set up camp. When our cheerful tents finally dotted the dry landscape alongside an arroyo bed – ten of them – we moved into some additional hiking sans backpack through some striking territory.

I’m proud to say I probably could have completed the original five miles with my pack. Still, I felt pretty rusty with the nitty-gritty things. For example, I had to bond with my Jetboil all over again–I’d forgotten the easiest way to light it. My expensive ultralight pillow developed a fatal leak. I worried about making some terrible error having to do with a snake or a bear. In the thick of things, it occurred to me the beginner’s label was “just right.” 

Feeling strong

That said, I was thrilled when Pam came up to me toward the end of the trip to say, “It’s great to see you looking so strong.” I forgot to mention, Pam is a former oncology nurse. She saw me through my darkest hours on my breast cancer slog, so she had a benchmark. Now I can proudly note I’m a beginning backpacker. This isn’t to say I’m not planning something that will take a few more nights, a few more miles.

Poem in Broad Street

My poem, “Animation,” was recently published in Broad Street.

Breast Cancer is a finalist in the 2019 Eric Hoffer Book Awards

I’m pleased to note Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts has been listed as a finalist in the chapbook category of the 2019 Eric Hoffer Book Awards.

 

Short Story in Calliope

My story, “Mini Escape,” has been published in Calliope: A Writer’s Workshop by Mail.

Moving Along the Causeway

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I’ve been crossing the Yolo Causeway to get to work. It’s a familiar ride—from Davis to Sacramento. I can remember being a kid in the backseat of the family car as one of my parents zoomed over this long viaduct above what is now called the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. The original causeway opened in 1916—the current incarnation was built in 1962. I was born that year. I once walked with my late father on a Davis levee as he explained how the man-made structure was protecting the region from flooding. During the rainy season I came to expect the waters that drained down the Sierras and inched up the side of the levee. Whenever this happened, drives on the causeway turned dramatic with glinting ripples on either side of the car.

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As an adult, I visited Davis during dryer years, only to ruminate on how all that water seemed to be a distance memory. People were happily claiming Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area for hiking and bird watching. One time I went hiking along a well-established trail down there wondering if the water would ever again be as high as it was during the sixties. Well, it’s relatively high right now. I’ve been enjoying a sense of déjà vu on my commutes to Sacramento City College, where I’ve just begun working as an adjunct librarian.

It’s interesting to work as a librarian in my homeland after being away almost 43 years. Recently, I poked around a Sacramento Bee database to discover a cryptic ad my great-grandfather placed in the Bee back in 1909. This was under “Ready Reference Guide of Leading Superior California Firms.”

“Sherritt House, Leading commercial, reasonable. O. B. Wergeland”

I knew my great-grandparents had run a boarding house in Truckee. Was this the one?

I dug deeper to discover the Sherritt House burned down in 1913.

“$75,000 Fire in Heart of Truckee: Sherritt and Ashton Rooming Houses, Each Three Stories in Hight [sic], Razed, and Two Saloons, Bakery and Barber Shop Damaged This Morning” (September 18, 1913).

“The Sherritt House was a landmark. It was erected more than forty years ago, and at one time was the leading hostelry here.” (September 18, 1913)

More family members showed up to greet me in the Bee. For example, I’m wondering if my grandfather, Irving Wergeland, was out and about in April of 1927.

“H. L. Beabes and I. W. Wergeland surveyed the road from Summit to the head of Donner Lake on skis Sunday and found snow from three to seventeen feet deep, the greatest depth being in the cut west of Donner bridge for a distance of 200 feet.”

My grandfather was definitely a skier and his name Irving, but death records reveal Norman as his middle name.

My grandmother, who went to her grave with the name Merle Hooper, was a contestant in a 1932 beauty contest.

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“If Merle Wergeland, above, should be selected queen in the Winter Sports Carnival, to be held in the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium, January 7th, her friends say she will be well qualified for the honors. She is the entrant of the Auburn Ski Club, and in addition to beauty she is a skier of ability.”

A follow-up article announced my grandmother placed third. Meanwhile, Grandfather Irving was also active in the Auburn Ski Club.

“The Auburn Ski Club this week unanimously elected Wendell Robie Of Auburn president of the club for the 1933-34 season. Irving Wergeland of Auburn is the new vice president of the club, and Lane Calder, a past president of the association, is treasurer.”

I read about how my great-grandfather died.

“O. B. Wergeland, 71, a prominent citizen of Truckee, died suddenly from a heart attack in the woodshed of his home.

Wergeland yesterday afternoon was engaged in piling wood in the shed. When Mrs. Wergeland chanced to visit the shed she found her husband’s body sprawled on the floor.

She summoned a physician, who pronounced the man dead.” (August 26, 1938)

Turns out he and my great-grandmother, Anna Wergeland, were residents of Truckee for forty years before he died (I knew they’d lived there, but I did not know how long).

There was more to uncover.

“Summer season students at the University of California at Davis will stage two plays by French Playwright Alfred Jarry July 18, 19, 20 and 21 in the UCD Main Theater.

Alan A. Stambusky will direct “King Ubu” and “Ubu Unchained.

The first play, which follows Ubu’s adventures in Poland, will star Paul Ford in the title role, while Jean Wergeland will play his ‘equally disgusting wife,’ Stambusky said.” (July 7, 1968)

Jean Wergeland is my mother. I remember seeing one of those plays when I was six years old.

And my late father appeared in the Sacramento Bee to answer a few questions.

“The University of California in Davis old book sale to buy new books will be held Sunday starting noon in the tree-shaded courtyard of the Shields Library at UCD. Wayne Wergeland, general chairman, and his committee have 9,000 books, something for everyone who reads. There will be an informal auction of about 40 rare and unusual volumes beginning at 1:30 p.m. ‘All books will be moderately and even cheaply priced, encouraging all who attend to buy at least one book,‘ Wergeland discloses.” (May 16, 1975)

Last weekend a friend and I took the California Zephyr across trestles running parallel to the Yolo Causeway over the water-filled Yolo Basin—and then on to Truckee. We enjoyed some fine views as the train wound its way into the Sierra Nevada foothills, shooting past Auburn, birthplace of my father. Before long the scenery out the window turned white, and we looked over the snowpack that had been there a while, though fresh snow adorned green conifers. As we lunched in the dining car, our ride in this new dimension remained enchanting. We stepped off the train into snow flurries, marveling at the snowbanks along the tracks. Truckee streets had clearly been tended by snowplows all winter, so it wasn’t difficult to get around on foot.

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Fortunately, we didn’t have to walk far to get to the historic Truckee Hotel (formerly the New Whitney House, which barely survived the fire that took out the Sherritt House. I’ve come to discover the Sherritt House was once situated across the street from the New Whitney. A former Bank of America takes up that corner now. It has morphed into a saloon fondly known as Bar of America.

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We checked into our second-floor room with plenty of old world charm and views of the town (the bathroom is down the hall, thank you very much!). I could imagine what Ole and Anna Wergeland’s world must have been like. Truckee exists at 5,817 feet, not far from Donner Pass, where the famed Mormon pioneers underwent their terrible ordeal. I’ve heard my great-grandfather helped build snow sheds covering the train tracks in those parts. Perhaps he turned to this line of work after the Sherritt House was destroyed. Now Truckee is an enjoyable getaway with a number of worthy eating establishments. Most had waiting lists the night we went in search of food.

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For my students working on research papers—here’s my Works Cited list:

Arden, Tom. “Tom Arden’s Town.” Sacramento Bee, NY Stocks Final ed., 16 May 1975, p. 32. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2:144FDEA786229ACC@EANX-NB-15D61E8A36BCDD3F@2442549-15D607B511F674BF@31-15D607B511F674BF@. Accessed 29 Mar. 2019.

“Auburn Beauty.” Sacramento Bee, One Star ed., 26 Dec. 1932, p. 7. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2:144FDEA786229ACC@EANX-NB-15319E9795C77513@2427068-15319D0F5E8345FA@6-15319D0F5E8345FA@. Accessed 29 Mar. 2019.

“Davis Students Will Stage Alfred Jerry’s UBU Plays.” Sacramento Bee, Home ed., 7 July 1968, p. 115. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2:144FDEA786229ACC@EANX-NB-16F1EC96F5591436@2440045-16F1E6B7EDB4F8B6@114-16F1E6B7EDB4F8B6@. Accessed 29 Mar. 2019.

“O. B. Wergeland Dies Suddenly in Truckee.” Sacramento Bee, 26 Aug. 1938, p. 8. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2:144FDEA786229ACC@EANX-NB-16474658B575138C@2429137-16473C7CC4B0801C@7-16473C7CC4B0801C@. Accessed 29 Mar. 2019.

“Pioneer Truckee Hotel Razed by Fire.” Sacramento Bee, 18 Sept. 1913, p. 8. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2:144FDEA786229ACC@EANX-NB-14F2556E689C754E@2420029-14EF343BF58DC23B@7. Accessed 29 Mar. 2019.

“Ready Reference Guide of Leading Superior California Firms.” Sacramento Bee, Two Star ed., 8 May 1909, p. 15. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2:144FDEA786229ACC@EANX-NB-14EFADF16600576F@2418435-14EFA8E85A041C07@14-14EFA8E85A041C07@. Accessed 29 Mar. 2019.

“Robie is Again Ski Club Head.” Sacramento Bee, One Star ed., 10 Nov. 1933, p. 8. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2:144FDEA786229ACC@EANX-NB-1536E9558310FE00@2427387-1536835EF99091DA@7-1536835EF99091DA@. Accessed 29 Mar. 2019.

“$75,000 Fire in Heart of Truckee.” Sacramento Bee, 18 Sept. 1913, p. 1. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2:144FDEA786229ACC@EANX-NB-14F2556E689C754E@2420029-14EF343B8B3BAEF6@0. Accessed 29 Mar. 2019.

“Snow 3 to 17 Feet Deep on Road Near Summit.” Sacramento Bee, 27 Apr. 1927, p. 24. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2:144FDEA786229ACC@EANX-NB-14FD542766BD4319@2424998-14F39F6BA84ED2F8@23-14F39F6BA84ED2F8@. Accessed 29 Mar. 2019.

 

 

 

 

In My Hometown—Davis, California

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It’s been eerie to move back to my hometown after being away for over forty-two years. I haven’t been here long, and it has taken virtually no effort to slide back into a familiar groove, a visceral knowing of this place. And yet, I am well aware I’ve missed entire novels describing the time between 1976 and today. Most people I once knew remain frozen in their teen visages. I probably won’t recognize many, even if I walk past them in the grocery store. When I do bump into a Davisite from my youth, their childhood photo tends to pop up. This doesn’t happen with other people I went to school with—the people I watched grow into adulthood. Their adolescent faces faded long ago.

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The novel that is my own life moved into the Pacific Northwest. After spending some twenty-five fulfilling years up there, I returned to California to work as a librarian for Cuyamaca College in San Diego County. During that pivotal year it actually felt like I’d moved to a brand new state. I’d relocated to Southern California, not the California that houses ghosts of my ancestors.

One line of my family has particularly strong roots in Northern California. My great-great-grandparents emigrated from Ireland. Their daughter, Katherine (my great-grandmother), was born in California in 1866. She actually spent time in Red Dog. For those not in the know, Red Dog is no longer a town. It’s a graveyard and a monument. I still haven’t figured out if my great-grandmother was actually born in that gold mining camp, though I have evidence she once lived there. Three more of my great-grandparents settled in Northern California. Two emigrated from Norway, and one moved out west from Rhode Island. This is a heritage that refuses to be ignored—it doesn’t care that I moved on to other regions. Yet I do feel completely chopped up by place—Oregon, Washington, Southern California. I guess you could say, I’m a veritable West Coast mutt.

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Still, I was born Davis. Well, I was born in Woodland. There wasn’t a hospital in Davis back in 1962. I was born in Woodland, but my parents took me home to Davis. I lived in Davis from birth to fourteen, enough time to absorb what this city was. Davis has continued to be my core, even as aspects have faded from memory. For me, a new story began at the age of fourteen—in Southern Oregon. Other stories followed. And now I’m beginning yet another one that will play out in a town where certain buildings, certain trees, continue to trigger flashbacks. I’m not sure how long I will stay. I’ve moved back to Davis to tie up loose ends, keep an eye on an aging parent, as I also take advantage of my free time the way I once did when I was kid. Yes, I have returned to my hometown a card-carrying member of the AARP, though I recently decided to call myself a tweener.

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After retiring from Cuyamaca College in 2017, I got a taste of full retirement. While those months were good for my health, it wasn’t long before I began feeling too young to be hanging out at home 24/7 (though I did get a lot of writing done). I found myself missing my profession. I was conflicted, because slowing down felt right for my recent breast cancer survivor status. The solution: I’ve just been hired to work as an adjunct librarian for Sacramento City College. This should afford me time to work on my writing and my health, while also giving me the opportunity to continue contributing to my profession. I should add, it’s great to be back at work—wonderful to embark on a new adventure in a familiar land.

Swan Song

Amahl

Getting ready for Amahl and the Night Visitors – performed by the Porthole Players and the Newport Symphony Orchesta.

I just scrolled through my own Tweets to revisit “2018 in the Life of Kari Wergeland.” As a breast cancer survivor, I have vowed to live as fully as I can, to refuse to “go gentle into that good night.” Well, it’s been a good year. I launched my first “real” poetry chapbook—I published a handful of other poems in journals and anthologies. I received acceptances on two short stories and one essay (due out in 2019). I sang in a holiday concert with the Central Coast Chorale in Lincoln County, Oregon. And I joined the Porthole Players in conjunction with the Newport Symphony Orchestra to perform as a soprano shepherdess in Amahl and the Night Visitors.I also landed some adjunct librarian hours with Sacramento City College. This will allow me to move into a swan song phase of a career I’ve loved and participated in since I first took a paraprofessional position in the Ashland Branch Library (Ashland, Oregon). I was still in high school at the time.

I must confess, Amahl and the Night Visitors takes the prize in terms of personal satisfaction. I worked with a vocal coach (Rhodd Caldwell) and a director (Bonnie Ross) who were upbeat, supportive, and instructive. I shared this experience with an enthusiastic cast and a group of fine musicians, people who were kind, talented, professional, and a whole lot of fun. We performed to a full house both nights. It felt like we burst to life on opening night. I suspect our troupe came away feeling pretty good about the whole thing. If I never get to do this again, I can now say I checked that box. This was a bucket list item for me.

I continue to think about my bucket list, because my days seem permeated with more intensity than the life I lived prior to breast cancer treatment. It’s been over two years since my last radiation zap, and I’m still finding a heightened sense of meaning in almost everything I do. I don’t want to waste another minute. I try to toss out anything that feels extraneous. I continue to feel gratitude for the opportunities that come my way. Maybe I’m more often noticing what is worth living for at all. Small things like how the ocean looks silver beneath the midday sun. Or how a muted winter landscape reveals its own kind of magnificence. As we were preparing for Amahl and the Night Visitors, our director Bonnie made a point of telling us that people sometimes ask her, “Why do you direct plays?” She said she did it to put some beauty into the world. She followed that thought with another one, “The world really needs this right now.”

Aesthetic considerations may seem inconsequential in the face of political turmoil, wildfires, floods, war, and famine, but I’m with Bonnie on thinking about how we can achieve acts of beauty in a troubled world. As a writer, I continue to ponder the purpose of my voice. What do I need to say? How should I say it? All sorts of thoughts come to mind—some are on my bucket list. Yet no matter how I end up answering these questions, I’d like Bonnie’s sentiment on beauty to be amongst any other reason I might have for writing or singing (or Tweeting or dealing with the public from the reference desk). How a person chooses to use their voice – even in the face of terrible conflict – can potentially move us all toward that fabulous choir sound, which can include major dissonances and minor chords, even as it transcends stalemates born of cheap lines.