QUAIL MUTTERINGS #47. Writing: Navigating the Obstacles (September 2017)

I must admit that I’ve been negligent about writing Quail Mutterings lately. My excuse is the same as everyone else’s: no time. But the fact of the matter is we all have the same amount of time available to us in a day and, for the most part, we simply decide, either consciously or unconsciously, how to spend it. For me, besides following my usual “to-do” lists, I’ve chosen to work on my other writing for the time being.

After retiring from The Dance Centre over a year ago, I’ve begun writing a fictional series about a dance studio. Each novel will focus on a different story ballet and include the adventures of some of the dancers. There doesn’t seem to be much available, in this vein, for eight to fourteen-year-old ballet-obsessed girls. There are plenty of books for horse-crazy kids so why not for dancers? They’re just as rabid for stories about their passion and so, I figured, who better to tackle this project than me? Thirty-seven years of fodder ought to keep me going for quite a while, I should think.

Last spring, when I had the rough draft of the first few chapters done, I met with a group of young dancers at a local elementary school. Each followed along on their pages as I, or a former student of mine, read aloud. We had the best time. Some of them contributed ideas about things they would like to see included in the story or ways to make it more interesting. It was a win/win. I got tips from my target audience and they got “extra credit” for participating.

Since finishing the full rough draft of the manuscript I, once again, am attending writer’s groups and classes. Having my work read and critiqued is essential in this process. The endless details to address in the re-writing and editing phases, such as believability, character point of view and arc of plotting, are next to impossible to get right without other’s feedback.

So now, back to the quail for a moment. I can only afford brief visits to mental wanderings while entrenched in my chosen endeavor. There are literally hundreds of quail in the canyon these days. Yesterday morning, during my run, I accidentally flushed out dozens of them from the sumac bushes lining the trail. I panted my apologies and carried on. After cooling down I took a cold shower. Not by choice, just no hot water. I suppose I’ll have to turn away from the writing project again and attend to the demands of a no-longer-functioning water heater. Things were going so well! Why now?

This morning, after a short writing session, it was time for a break. I headed down to the kitchen for a drink of water. Before taking a sip I noticed a fairly large bird lying in the dirt outside. It reminded me of a Porwil, but it was late morning, so that wasn’t right. I guess it startled when I went outside and it took off. Through the leaves of the Red Berry bush I noticed movement on the other side. I held still and watched. It was a big, beautiful doe. While watching her walk toward the trail I looked around for the two fawns who usually come around with their mother. Perhaps this was a different doe. Anyway, she made my day.

Since I’ve committed to this writing project for now, I’m not going to lead any of the docent-led hikes out at Ramona Grasslands Old Survey Road this fall. I will, instead, take walks on my own when I feel the need to break up the writing concentration sessions. Power hikes, walking meditations, trail running… whatever it takes. Plus working, of course. That goes without saying. And then, after looking up the mountain at the wet boulder beneath our water tank, I hiked up there to play detective. Great. It’s just what I thought it was. Our water storage vessel has sprung a leak! The fun never stops. The writing goes on hold once again.


Chi Varnado’s memoir, A CANYON TRILOGY: Life Before, During and After the Cedar Fire and her children’s book, The Tale of Broken Tail are available on www.amazon.com. Her collection of essays, Quail Mutterings, can be found on www.chivarnado.com.

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QUAIL MUTTERINGS #38. Gather, Jam and Dine (December 2015)

QUAIL MUTTERINGS #38.  Gather, Jam and Dine (December 2015)

Drum roll. Rum pum pum pum. The Winter Solstice approaches as the days become shorter and winter officially begins. Lights twinkle along roof lines and stores are crammed full of holiday merchandise for the hungry consumers. Jingle, jingle tinkle the bells signaling the Salvation Army’s donation buckets strategically placed in high foot traffic areas. In our canyon, the clear nights are already winter-time chilly beneath an explosion of twinkling stars which somehow seem brighter this time of year. I can see my breath during my early morning run and my ears feel like ice cubes fastened to the sides of my head.
My grandmother always got swept up in the holidays by baking a dozen or so varieties of Christmas cookies, each tucked into its own large tin stacked with the others on the dining room floor. Once winter break started and Bamoo would have the two weeks off from teaching school, she’d begin her frantic endeavor making coffee cakes for all the relatives. Sometimes I’d walk down the dirt road to her cabin and help. I loved kneading the aromatic, yeasty dough and then rolling out the stretchy plumpness on the bread board. Brown sugar, cinnamon and citron (which I couldn’t stand so I’d leave out on ours) would get sprinkled onto the flat, buttered surface and then rolled up and formed into a ring. This would then be allowed to rise for a second time in the toasty warm kitchen heated by the wood-burning stove. On Christmas Eve she’d deliver her savory beauties to a many family members speckled around the county. It was her own legacy and everyone looked forward to enjoying them on Christmas morning.
These days, we still heat our log cabin with a wood-burning stove. I feel some things from days gone by are better than the new, less simple, modern contraptions. I rather miss the days when we didn’t all seem to expect instant gratification. Being out here, nestled in the back of a rural canyon, away from pavement and shopping malls, is most likely what draws people to our unique homestead. We’re listed on the Airbnb website as a ‘nature lover’s paradise’. Most of our guests seem to come from Los Angeles or Orange County wanting to get away from it all for a little rest and relaxation. And perhaps a hike in the hills.
The week before Thanksgiving the clothing company, Tilly’s, booked our place for their ‘Spring Wear’ photo shoot. The models, organizers and photographers spent three days clamoring over boulders, balancing on stacks of firewood, petting the horses and examining the natural flora. All the while trying to look natural in a somewhat foreign, at least to them, rural environment. Most of them were completely out of their element and had never experienced any place like this before. Good for them, I thought. I hope some of the natural environment seeped into their beings and created a space for more of this. And a deeper appreciation of nature and a glimpse into a different way of life.
I think back to last December when The Dance Centre put on The Nutcracker. All the students assumed their roles well and enjoyed performing for the enthusiastic audiences. This is an every other year event, making this an ‘off year’. But that means we get to perform a new story ballet this spring so the discussion has begun regarding what it might be. A traditional story ballet? A fairy tale turned into a ballet? A new story or perhaps a twist on an old fable? We’ll see.
So, without The Nutcracker festivities, along with not having children at home anymore, I don’t seem to have the energy to put up a tree and decorate. And I am especially not inclined to want to take it all down and put it away. It feels like so much work for such a small amount of time to appreciate it.  But, I guess one could argue the same point against story ballets. I guess for me, though, the studio’s productions touch so many people in a variety of ways. Whether you’re a performer, a parent or a spectator the take aways are diverse. It’s visual, auditory, kinesthetic and a multitude of other experiences.
I believe I’ll take a simpler approach this year and host a drumming circle. What better way to celebrate the old and bring in the new year than to get together with friends, make music and share good food? Let’s gather, jam and dine!

Chi Varnado is a contributing writer for The San Diego Reader. Her memoir, A CANYON TRILOGY: Life Before, During and After the Cedar Fire and her children’s book, The Tale of Broken Tail are available on www.amazon.com. Chi directs the Ramona Dance Centre. Her collection of essays, Quail Mutterings, can be found on www.chivarnado.com.

QUAIL MUTTERINGS #32. Ramona’s own NUTCRACKER is Here! (December 9, 2014)

QUAIL MUTTERINGS #32.  Ramona’s own NUTCRACKER is Here! (December 9, 2014)

Now back from Thanksgiving break we resume our classes and rehearsals for The Nutcracker. Everyone seems refreshed and gung-ho to amp up our march toward the performances. The vacation did us all good for we are now ready to put on our dancing shoes and slip into whatever character roles we are set to assume. For some, there are multiple parts which make for interesting personality changes. I love it when the students transform into their new identities.
The Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier arrive an hour early on Tuesdays to rehearse their five-minute duet. The nuances in the music and choreography dictate the timing and steps, and provide the base for them to come into their new identities.
“Hold your landing longer.”
“Stay with the music here, but push it there.”
Don’t forget to point that back foot and flare the leg. Beautiful!”
And so go my comments to carry the dancers closer to the desired ends. The Snow Queen stays later on Saturdays to rehearse her dance, as Clara gratefully sits down to remove her pointe shoes.
“I remember when I was the clown doll,” says Helen who’s now playing Clara. “I loved that dance. I think it was my favorite part.”
This surprises me since it’s a short, silly kind of part. I remind her of playing the “Jittery Fairy” in Sleeping Beauty. She agrees that she enjoyed that one as well.
Over the weekend I’ve pulled the Christmas-wrapped boxes out of our barn and brought them to the studio to use as props. The Intermediate children need to get used to carrying them on stage, in the beginning of the story, and putting them in the right places under the giant Christmas tree. They have already practiced galloping around on stick horses with the beginners. Act I in The Nutcracker is colorful and festive. Countless repetitions of all the dances in order, without pausing, are necessary for the ballet’s preparation. Drosselmeyer, played by Morgan, almost always brings laughter from the cast as he continuously makes impromptu changes to his dance. Or when he fills in for other dancers, engaging in off the cuff, exaggerated movements. Morgan also plays the Cavalier, a soldier, and the Mouse King. It’s so rewarding to me when the students transform and become their character enough to feel at home in it and act accordingly. When they take ownership of the role and adjust it for themselves, that’s when I get the biggest charge. I am then entertained by what the story has become after I’ve put the basics onto their bodies.
This year, the Ramona Dance Centre is staging two performances of The Nutcracker. The first is on Friday evening December 19th at 6:30 PM in the Olive Peirce Middle School Performing Arts Center. The second one is the following afternoon, Saturday December 20th at 2:00 PM. Tickets are $5 at the door. In connection with the Saturday matinee we are holding our Reunion. This is to celebrate thirty years of story ballets and thirty-five years of teaching. At least two alumni will be guest performing – including Erica Buechner who now dances professionally in San Diego. I’m hoping many prior students and parents will join us at the Reunion. It’s a potluck, so come one, come all and have a ball at Ramona’s own Nutcracker Ballet. For more information visit www.ramonadancecentre.com.

Chi Varnado is a contributing writer for The San Diego Reader. Her memoir, A CANYON TRILOGY: Life Before, During and After the Cedar Fire and her children’s book, The Tale of Broken Tail are available on www.amazon.com. Chi directs the Ramona Dance Centre. Her collection of essays, Quail Mutterings, can be found on www.chivarnado.com.