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 #36. An Imperfect Wedding (July 13, 2015)

QUAIL MUTTERINGS #36.  An Imperfect Wedding (July 13, 2015)

There’s that saying about when bad things happen: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. I can lean one way or the other depending on the situation, but I still pretty much straddle the fence on that one. One thing is clear though, life is full of those events which can fall into that category. For each and every one of us. Often there is some sliver of a silver lining even if it’s obscured, delayed or presents itself years later in an altered attitude in some distantly related way.
Our beloved canyon was, once again, home to a beautiful wedding between Kali and Edwin. Months of planning and extensive yard work occupied us yet again. Two years ago, Jessie and Sean tied the knot here, providing the stage for her sister and his cousin to kindle their romance. Several of us had noticed the two of them, rocking chairs pushed close together on the front porch. Getting to know each other after the main festivities were winding down.
The magical day arrived on Saturday as our log cabin bustled with the bridal party and helping friends and relatives. Kent and I did our best trying to keep ahead of the game: providing food and scrambling under the avalanche of details, crossing things off our own list of things to get done and adding new ones as they presented themselves. Two hours before ‘Show Time’ our parking attendants were already directing cars up the side of the canyon to the cleared fields. But the flowers had not arrived yet. The bridal bouquets and boutonnieres were to be delivered by the florist at noon and it was now after 12:30.
The photographers wove through the house arranging varying groups of individuals together for digital preservation. The loft was strewn with the remnants of the morning’s hair and make-up scene, furniture pushed aside to make room for artful gatherings of the bridesmaids. Out front, a few guests milled around under the oaks listening to the music coming from the speakers of Kali’s dad’s band.
An hour later, the flowers still had not arrived. Kali had just confirmed with the florist two days before and everything had been set. She’s extremely organized and on top of things. Nikki, my assistant; my sister, Bo; and Jessie and I brainstormed and made phone calls as we were getting dressed. I then decided to get Susan and Dina to pick up whatever they could find on their way back from town. The two of them had already spent all morning decorating the split-rail fence as well as the front porch entry and had gone back to the motel to shower and change. Of all the people involved, Susan would be the one most likely able to pull this off on such short notice. The minutes ticked by as we continued to get ready while trying to not appear too concerned – for Kali’s sake.
It was now ‘Show Time,’ but still, no flowers. I know it’s not a huge deal in the scheme of life, but we were finding it more and more difficult to simply smile and enjoy the moment. When I called Susan again they were just leaving the store. I sent Bo out to grab our cousins and my artist friend Helen, who was also serving as the officiator for the ceremony, joined the flower team. I asked Kent and Chance to meet Susan and Dina as soon as they drove in as I laid out scissors and leftover ribbons and accessories on the dining room table. Nikki apologized to the guests and explained the reason for our delayed start.
Kali came into the kitchen holding an assorted bouquet of fresh-cut, colorful flowers. “Look what Edwin gave me. He wandered around the yard and picked them himself. They’re perfect.” She carefully wiped her tears with the corner of a tissue, touched by her soon-to-be- husband’s thoughtfulness.
“They’re beautiful!”
“I wish my husband would do that for me.”
“That’s the most meaningful bouquet of flowers.”
“Far better than a florist would do…” We all shared the specialness of the moment.
“This is what you’ll remember,” I told her.
Helen added, “You have to have at least one thing go wrong at a wedding or it’s bad luck.”
Susan and Dina stormed in the door and the group sprang into action. As they arranged, clipped, pinned and tied ribbons I pointed out to Deborah, Sean’s mom and the groom’s aunt, the number of actual working artists in that magical circle surrounding the table. It wasn’t exactly an assembly line, but the creative efficiency was miraculous to witness.
Better late than never, we sashayed in to Vivaldi’s The Four Season’s, down the aisle on the wood chippings and found our seats. Edwin and his best man danced in to The Imperial March, Darth Vader’s theme, and laughter erupted. And then we all stood when Kali and seven-year-old- Ian came down together to A Thousand Years played by The Piano Guys, bringing tears to our eyes.
A special seat was left vacant, except for some flowers, for those special, close relatives who had passed on before this very special day. Hopefully, they too felt included in this blending of our families. I was struck by how beautifully elegant and simple the bridesmaids’ uncluttered, white flowers were. So appropriate, I thought, for this occasion. And Kali’s special, hand-picked by the groom, bridal bouquet. An unexpected upgrade had come out of the failed, best-laid plans to create an even better image to deposit into our memory banks.
Three of us: Edwin’s two aunts, Lori and Deborah, and I read special passages. Kali, Edwin and Helen performed a sand ceremony layering the different colors into a glass frame. Ian took his rightful spot joining his mom and Edwin in the pact. They had written their own vows and, of course, more tears. And laughter.
The band played. Tacos were served. Hilarious, tear-jerking toasts were made. For about an hour several of us searched, off and on, for the missing garter. Again, not a huge deal in the scheme of things, but another funny little glitch in an amazingly well planned wedding. By this time, Kali really didn’t care, as someone had handed her a left-over ribbon to use in lieu of. It was finally discovered by two members of the bridal party, in the dumpster, still wrapped in its zip-locked bag. Another one for the memory banks.
Earlier, during dinner, while talking with a long-time family friend, I watched as one end of our split-rail fence toppled over after one of the groom’s cousins had attempted to vault over it after being summoned by the photographer. I turned away shaking my head, not wanting to see the damage. I turned back to watch Kent prop it back up.
“You know, Chi,” my friend said. “You really have a blessed life.”
I studied her face and thought about it. “I guess I do,” I answered. “I have a pretty bitchin’ life.” I looked around and surveyed the scene. Friends and family eating, talking and laughing together. At peace under the oak tree canopy.

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 #31. Wine Wednesdays (September 19, 2014)

QUAIL MUTTERINGS #31.  Wine Wednesdays (September 19, 2014)

My sister and I were looking forward to having veggie salads with bleu cheese dressing on that evening in mid June. We had specifically chosen that day because one of the local restaurants held Wine Wednesdays in which they offered a bottle of wine for half price when meals were ordered. Of course, the day we went was the day they ended this deal. Boo hoo. “We’ll just have to create our own Wine Wednesdays,” I said. The salads were delicious anyway and we each got a glass of wine.
During the month of July I hosted my own Wine Wednesdays out front under the oaks for my liberal-minded crone friends. They were a hit. My sister would arrive early and help cover the picnic tables with table cloths, take out the pitcher of iced cucumber water, pick flowers for the rustic vases, and carry out the wine glasses, plates, utensils and napkins. Semi-elegance in the summer shade with a light potluck.
When a bunch of women over fifty get together the discussions can be quite interesting as well as entertaining. M says that her husband wonders what we all talk about. On one occasion someone has brought up that a friend’s ninety-year-old mother is getting chemotherapy.
“Can you imagine going through that at that age? I can’t even fathom it.”
“I sure wouldn’t do it. I’d just take the morphine.”
“I think that the local Indians, back when, would just take peyote and jump off a big boulder when they got too old and sick to cope anymore.”
“My husband said that if he ever got so senile that he’s incoherent then we should go out and have a hunting accident.”
“Yeah, and then you’d go to jail for shooting him.”
“Our laws aren’t too keen on assisted suicide, are they?”
“You know, in Oregon, they’re more lenient and understanding about it. And they are a lot more generous with the drugs for palliative care.”
“Boy, I can’t wait to tell my husband what we talked about today!”
We all laughed as a light breeze rustled through the trees above. The trickling water from the two fountains helped to camouflage the time of year, but still the temperature was pleasant. A dove landed on a branch overhead and called several times.
The month of August was too difficult for most of us to commit to Wednesdays, with work or trips, so we took a hiatus until mid September when we agreed to try to get together once a month during the school year. This last Wednesday was our selected day – right at the tail end of a triple digit heat wave. I wondered if we’d have to cancel since I have no air conditioning in the house and the coolest place actually is out front under the oaks. This could be disastrous for a bunch of menopausal women. We persevered.
My sister and I set up two standing misters that attach to hoses and even though we got a little wet it was better than nothing. Thankfully, when 4:00 rolled around it was already a bit cooler than it had been. We all seem to look forward to these ‘mini vacations’ to stop a while and enjoy each other’s company. None of us drink that much at all. It’s more about the label on the bottle. Is it interesting or pretty? I guess we just need an excuse to get together and connect, in an old-fashioned, real sort of way. Not texting, emailing or tweeting. There’s no cell phone service here anyway.
I told them about my substitute teaching job on Monday when it was too hot for the middle schoolers to go outside for PE. So each class of fifty or more students came into my classroom, which was only equipped for about thirty, for an hour with no lesson plan. Another PE teacher brought me a sports video, but there was no DVD player in the room. A lot of good that was. So, I got to wing it. I knew I had to keep them occupied or complete chaos would reign. Luckily, after taking roll some ideas came to me.
“How many of you want to go to college?” I asked. A show of hands.
“How many of you don’t want to go to college?”
“Who will probably go to college only because your parents want you to?”
Then I asked them what they might want to major in: PE? Science? History?
“Now,” I said. “Each table and the surrounding students sitting on the floor is a company. I’d like you to come up with an idea or a product and select a spokesperson for your group to sell it to the rest of us. You’ve got five minutes. Go.”
The decibels in the room grew substantially. Each table gave their spiel. Then after hearing all the groups I gave them two minutes to either improve their idea or pick a new one. Then we all listened again. Lots of students had questions about the products or “what if” scenarios so we spent the rest of the time fielding these inquiries. I told them that this was most likely how they’d have to think or work no matter what they ended up doing as a career. They were jazzed.
M said, “I’ll bet they’ll want you to sub at that school a lot in the future.”
“I doubt it,” I said. “I’m only available on some Mondays and Fridays since I’m busy at the studio on the other days. Besides, they’ll probably never even hear about it.”
“Hmm,” said R. “That’s probably true. A big institution like that. The kids, most likely, won’t talk to their parents at that age and everyone is so caught up in their own thing. Nobody really cares anyway.”
D began sharing about the trip she’d be taking with a friend in June. It was going to be to the south of France.
“Can you take me with you?” I asked. We all drooled over travel, especially to there or Italy.
She told us about other adventures she’d been on with her life-long friend. One of them had included meeting some people who were instrumental in re-populating Trumpeter Swans in Canada.
As our second hour wound down we each carried armloads into the house. Coming back outside, we paused under the oaks.
“You know,” S said. “The south of France doesn’t have anything on this place.”
“Really? You think so?” I asked.
“Yeah. I’m sure of it.”
It makes me happy that my friends like being here. I like sharing the canyon with them. Perhaps this is my true purpose. It feels right being a steward for this special place in nature, and providing a time and place for others to find respite from the onslaught of modern life.

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.