March 2021 Story Sparks

I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the Oregon Trail.  Driving it. Walking it. Reading diaries from it and putting characters on it. In 1852, the first year that the most families came across, there were all kinds of fascinating things that happened. It was the first year that the “bloomer” costume was written about in diaries and the first year after a Plains Indian treaty was signed making it a safer journey. Most significant is that it was a year of massive cholera deaths. Diarists noted graves passed and wrote of burying their loved ones in the trail then running wagons over it so that wolves and other scavengers wouldn’t dig it up. No time for funerals really. People had to move on though we do know that some people did turn back. Still, tending to the losses demanded so much energy, strained what had been normal, and for some, challenged their faith, the hope on which they had set out.

After All Together in One Place came out – a story based on a diary entry of 11 wagons all driven by women having turned back East in 1852– I learned of a quilting group in Raleigh Hills, a suburb of Portland, OR, who had read the book and quilted their version of it. They called themselves the Quilt Worms: reading, then quilting those books. We gathered some of them together at a book signing and they held up their fabric art and told the story of their table runner or king-sized quilt. One woman, Sharon Guthrie, held up a smaller quilt she later gave me. It looked like a wagon bow sewn against the mountains. She said that the Oregon Trail stories were actually depressing, all the challenge and loss. Then she said what she liked about my books is that they were stories not of what people left behind but of what people were going toward.

As we come out of this year of pandemic strains, I find myself not wanting to deny all the losses such as my friend dying of Covid-19 right before Christmas. Those losses need grieving. But like that quilter, I do want to focus not on what people left behind, but what we are going toward.

We are going toward so many good things! Hugs instead of elbow bumps. Reading lips again (for those of us hearing challenged). Seeing smiles when all of us who want to, have the vaccines and no longer need masks. We’re learning that the digital world brings connection, changes at work sites but that it has limits for education. We’re learning that knowing one’s neighbors is a good thing and that the raising of children takes enormous energy and time.

There is also evidence that many women who lost jobs or had to quit in order to home school, were not only challenged but discovered they might like to be a stay-at-home mom during those younger years — if there was a way to afford it. To be present when a toddler said her first words or a middle schooler gives her the high-five for getting that math problem that stumbled them both cements the treasure of moments that make memories. And perhaps that is the greatest thing to look forward to – that we carry the lessons of the pandemic into the future and never forget what is truly important.

For a long time, when I looked at Sharon Guthrie’s gift quilt, I thought the view was out the back of the wagon since the mountains were behind them. But one day when I held it up to tell its story, (I think I was in Nice, France) I realized it could have been the view ahead. For there are always new mountains to climb. But we can face those mountains better with family, friends and faith. The women of the Oregon Trail knew that. I’m guessing we do too.

Women’s History Month

This is my month! I’ve learned so much by having the opportunity to research and write about extraordinary women. From Jane Sherar who had a happy marriage and shared through her actions how to live well with her neighbors, the Wasco, Warm Springs and Paiute people of Oregon, to my latest, Something Worth Doing, about Abigail Scott Duniway who spent her life not only caring for her family, running businesses (a newspaper, millinery, a school and boarding house) but also pushed for the right for women to vote. There are so many women to celebrate this month it’s hard to know where to begin. So perhaps I’ll begin by remembering women in my life – grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunties, sisters and daughters.

This is a picture of Jessie Bauer, my grandmother, taken at her wedding. She is the subject of A Flickering Light and An Absence so Great.

My step-daughter Kathleen lives in Florida and she is a caregiver for her health-challenged husband, looks after a grandson (pre-pandemic) a few days a week after school and got her father’s construction genes building cabinets, chests and spectacular fences. Years ago, she adopted her step-daughter’s infant and gave her days to a baby. She’s outspoken about what matters to her and is a great friend.

My daughter-in-law Melissa is another remarkable woman. She overcame health challenges, worked with families who had disabled children, managed a difficult pregnancy, raised a precious daughter and helps as she can with a granddaughter. She’s a great cook and supports her husband (Jerry’s son) especially as his job sometimes takes him away for weeks at a time. Before the pandemic, she managed a local community center and always has ideas for what might make Jerry’s back/health better.

Barb (I call her Barbie) is my sister-in-law though I love her like a sister. A dog whisperer and other animal confidant – goats, cats, dogs, horses, peacocks, chickens – she taught her boys how to treat women, had them go with her to women’s shelters to bring eggs from their farm and talked about why a shelter was needed. She coached track in her spare time encouraging kids; worked with her husband (my brother) in their business and together they manage landscape needs at their local church, give away chickens, prepare and serve at a community meal (pre-pandemic). She’s creative (each of these women are more crafty than I’ll ever be!) and generous. Each of these women adapt, love fully and give generously to those around them and I love them for it!

This year during women’s history month, I’m honoring them and remembering my mom, sister and grandmother, too. Maybe you can honor those closest to you too. A card, flowers, some way to let them know they are loved and remembered even before they are history.

Story-telling Tips

I get a great many questions about how to do certain things in writing. How do you research? How do you promote? How do you create vivid characters? And onward. So next month, I’m adding a new section to my website that will offer story-telling tips. The tips will provide encouragement and specifics to nurture your writing/reading lives. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Helping Kids Deal with Grief

I participated in an hour-long community forum with Dr. Shilo Tippett and Radio Producer Sue Matters about things we can do to help kids during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The forum was recorded and hosted by KWSO radio station located on the Warm Springs Reservation where I worked in Early Childhood and mental health in my life as a clinical social worker. We talked about helping kids deal with loss and how grief can show up as anger in kids and how to help kids tell themselves different, more powerful stories. Listen to the forum on Soundcloud here.

Word Whisperings

Walkers Wisdom His Journey from Puppy to Big Dog
By Edie Jones
Illustrated by Jeni S Kelleher

I met Edie when she enrolled in a writing class that award-winning author Bob Welch and I taught over a few years called Beachside Writers. Edie is a retired teacher and she had a great idea to write a book for parents about positive parenting. Raising Kids with Love, Honor and Respect: Recipes for Success!   It is a great book, has won awards and I’ve given several to new parents. She writes with passion and accessibility for first time parents and those who’ve had a few cherubs to raise. Walker’s Wisdom is a poetry book with luscious illustrations from Jeni Kelleher. It was written after Edie became a widow. Walker was her husband Ted’s dog, and the wisdom she conveys having learned from her dog companion will resonate with what companionship, grief, joy and learning is all about. Look for it on Amazon. Great to read to kids; great to read for yourself.

What’s Ahead

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention during this month the life of my work in progress, Natalie Curtis. Born into wealth and with a gift of music, Natalie loses her voice as a young woman. Torn by demands of her age and her culture, she finds herself in the music of the indigenous people of the West. It’s a story of what one person with a heart for others, can do.  I think that’s what most of my stories are about, the power of one to make a difference. Sometimes we think we have no control in our lives but we always have this: to be clear about what matters in our lives and to have the courage to act on that. Natalie did and I hope you’ll find interest in her journey in the September release of The Healing of Natalie Curtis.


With things opening up, look for future listings of face-to face meetings and/or bookstore web presentations.

I haven’t forgotten the importance of beauty over bread as we deal with despair and uncertainty. Here’s my gift to you. Beauty and music, nature and movement.

Celebrate the women in your lives. They are all beautiful!