Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Hibiscus That's as Big as a Lunch Plate

Amazing. Didn't think the giant pink hibiscus would bloom this year. But it didn't let me down.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


A hard winter. An ice storm that surprised us yesterday.

But today the yard is full of diamonds and glass trees.

Buds encased in ice.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Palms and Snowy Mountains

By Claudia Ricci

I guess most people come out to Palm Springs for golfing, as there is said to be 100 golf courses.

But I've only seen one, as we drove to Palm Canyon, one of many of the so-called "Indian Canyons," part of the reservation where the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians lives. We hiked Palm Canyon first, and saw 3,000 native California fan palms. Of 2,800 species of palm world-wide, this is the only species of palm native to California.

Then, yesterday, we went back to hike Andreas Canyon. Everyone on the trail was smiling. It is one of the most astonishing places I've ever been. It's like hiking in the Garden of Eden. It is the sort of place you wish you could airlift every single person you love in for a few hours.

Bubbling streams.
Gigantic pink and rose-colored rock. Waving palms. Cactus as high as your shoulders. And tiny desert flowers.

Clear air. Blue skies. Mountains powdered with snow. And so much rock.

We were having so much fun that when we reached the end of the hike, we turned around and hiked back in the other direction.

The ocotillo cactus, with their thin limbs sprawling 10 or 12 feet high, had red flowers that attracted hummingbirds! So too did the tiny red chuparosa, a desert flower that resembles honeysuckle. And yes, the blossoms are sweet and taste a little like cucumber! People here put them in salad!


No wonder the Hollywood stars came here.

Clear air. Blue skies. Mountains powdered with snow.

And blood red bougainvillea. And purple too.

And palm trees. Everywhere.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Arrived in San Diego last night in the wind and rain, but this morning the sun came out and we saw a rainbow over the city. We are staying on Coronado Island.

And then we saw the fluffy PINK FLAMINGOS striding through the water, balanced on thin legs with those tiny pink knees.

All the bird of paradise.

And the palm trees.


Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Carcelera is a Prison Song that Frees the Singer!

Flamenco feeds the soul. It is deeply spiritual, mysterious and gut wrenching. Its exact origins are unclear. The music emerged in the southern Andalusian landscape of Spain after traveling out of India with the gypsies. Like the Jews and the Moors, gypsies suffered continual persecution, and lived for centuries in perpetual fear of pogroms and expulsions.

Rootless and poor, forced into thievery and often imprisoned, like Sister Renata, the gypsies created a music that cries out in anguish and desperation. Whether in dance ("baile"), song ("cante") or guitar ("toque"), the performer of flamenco dives into profound displays of emotion, or “duende,” all the while holding strictly to “compás,” the driving beat of the music, as relentless as a heartbeat or a death march. Lyrics reflect the paradoxical character of the Spanish people, juxtaposing piety and passion, whores and nuns. And those castenats? That rattle is a rattle perhaps of the bones that linger after death!

So I didn’t know a thing about flamenco until a day in January 1995 when I was lying on the floor of my bedroom. And then, something amazing happened. I heard the flamenco playing, and it lit a fury in my chest. For the whole story on how the mysterious music swept me up and how playing flamenco under the direction of virtuoso Maria Zemantauski changed my life, my whole attitude toward art and how it frees the soul, then read the Acknowledgements in my new novel, "Seeing Red." Oh -- and if you would, please buy the book?

And while you're at it, go to CD Baby, and please buy Maria's music, her amazing CD, "Seeing Red," because you see, it is Maria's music that inspired Castenata and Sister Mysteries and Seeing Red! I wrote the entire novel, Seeing Red, every single chapter, with headphones on, listening to her first CD, "Mrs. Laughinghouse." Those rasqueados and falsetas and arpeggios and the thunderous drumming and strumming that Maria plays on her strings and the body of her guitar they filled me with emotion and words and scenes and characters. And the rest is history, or better, herstory!

In the depths of my cancer treatment, in July, 2002, when the veins in my arms grew so sore from the chemo that I could barely hold up the guitar, I went to my lesson anyway, just because that fucking doctor (Dr. Monster) at Sloan had told me not to, I went because my remarkable guitar teacher Maria Z is so wonderful, so talented and spirited and inspiring. We sat there chatting and after a while Maria said very casually to me, “Hey, why don’t you see if you can just hold the guitar. Don’t put any pressure on your fingers at all. So I took the guitar out of its red velvet case, and held it in my lap. I felt happy. And soon she had my fingers on the strings, and my arms didn’t hurt, and I played. I played. I played.

And just like me, back in 1883, Renata plays and plays and plays and frees herself from the hellhole of her prison cell!

A CARCELERA is a form of flamenco that specifically refers to prison and jail life. According to The Art of Flamenco, by D.E. Pohren, gypsy prisoners used to sing to relatives and friends outside the prison walls, in the language called caló, the Gypsy language that mixed romaní and Spanish. One such song, and this is a real song taken from Pohren's book, is the song that Renata sings in prison in Chapter 24:

“In three days I’ve eaten
Only bread and tears:
That is the food
That my jailers give.”

Teresa Tells Me To Write About Antonie in the Old Days

Renata’s Diary

February 24, 1883 In the afternoon, when I got back to the convent, Teresa and I escaped up to the baked hillside behind the convent.

There we spread a blanket and sank beneath the blue sky and our beloved live oak tree. A hot breeze was blowing. I so much wanted to take off my veil. I didn’t. We sat there, in the shade, and Teresa surprised me with a canteen of freshly squeezed lemonade that she’d made me.

Then I made her read Antonie’s pages. I made her read “Renata Dancing." I made her read "Roseblade.”

When she finished, those normally cheerful blue eyes of hers were muddied and solemn.

“Oh Renata.” She took my hand. “He…your cousin is going to destroy you with these lies for sure.”

“Yes, I fear he will. But what am I to do?”

She gazed out to the golden hillside, still holding onto my hand. And slowly she shook her head.

“I don’t know that there is anything that can possibly help. But one thing you must absolutely do.” The deep blue sky color sailed back into her eyes. “Record everything that happens. Write it all down. Leave out nothing, not a single detail.”

I nodded. “God knows, I am writing in the diary every blessed day.”

“Yes, yes. You must continue.” She stood. “And one other thing you could do. Remember I told you to write the story of how things were when the two of you were growing up?”

“Yes. I remember. And I have considered it. But how is writing such a history going to help?”

“You will see for yourself, and show others too, how the past, your past with Antonie, has shaped things. You will see how things have come to be the way they are.”

I considered her. Usually such a jolly soul, Teresa was wholly serious today.

“Yes, I suppose it can’t hurt,” I said.

“And now Renata, I’ve got to head back. Mother Yolla instructed me at lunch to attend to the henhouse today and I dare not show up to supper without having done it, or I will pay dearly.”

“Oh yes, of course, and I’ll come, I’ll help,” I said, standing. But she stopped me.

“NO.” She held up one hand in commandment. “You my dear sister, you are going to sit down and write.”

“But it might wait, I could…”

“NO.” Another hand up. “You must write in the diary. Right now. Open straight to a clean page. And begin. Write about your cousin and you. In the old days, when you first came. Maybe buried in your words you will see, if there were clues, already, back then.”

I watched her retreat down the hillside. She held the dark skirt of her habit wide, and as she loped down the hill, the hot air shimmered, and she was a ghostly figure, there on the hill.

Stagecoach Renata Rode in Arriving in California as a Child

Antonie lusted after his cousin Renata from the first moment he caught sight of her on that warm sunny day at the end of May, 1874 when she stepped off the stagecoach in a cloud of dust on the Main Street of San Jose. She carried a small purse and a tiny leather suitcase. She had been traveling for nearly seven weeks. She had started her journey in southern Spain, boarding a steamer in the port city of Cadiz. She landed in New York and rode the train across the continent to Vallejo. There, she boarded a stagecoach headed south to Monterrey.

Senora and Antonie were waiting with the grey wagon when the door to the stagecoach flew open. The young woman, wearing a rather stark-looking navy blue dress, was framed in the open door of the coach. She blinked and raised one arm to her face because there was so much dust. Yellow road dust. Dust in clouds. Dust in swirls. Dust collecting in lungs and throats. Dust sticking to shoes and sinking into shirt collars.

The dress Renata wore -- tightly fitted at the bodice, with a rounded white collar and a rather full skirt—was coated in the same dust. Her black high top shoes were scuffed and caked in dry mud. One of the laces –on the right shoe—had snapped and she had repaired the lace with a knot. The lace was not long enough, however, so the top edges of her right shoe flopped forward. Grit lined both shoes. Grit had also settled deeply into her scalp and her hair was matted to her skull. She had not brushed her teeth for at least three days

And yet, despite all this, her beauty was quite startling. Her cousin took one look at her and he literally stopped breathing. Later, as he lay in bed, he would review her looks, taking stock, trying to unlock the key, trying to figure out what it was that lured him. He would never be cured of this fascination. His love for Renata would haunt him until he took his final breath eight years later....

This is How You Write a Cancer Novel:

This post appeared first on June 13, 2006

Dance around it. Don't write about the illness. Write about a nun. A nun who turns into a flamenco dancer. A nun accused of killing her cousin. A nun falsely accused of the murder. Jailed for a crime she didn't commit. Because that's exactly how the cancer treatment felt: like a wicked punishment. "Dear God, what did I do to deserve this?" And when the story gets too depressing? Ah just pick up your guitar and strum those thunderous rasqueados. Make your fingers into hooves. Let them unfold over the ////// guitar strings //////. Bring an alegrias or a farruca or a soleares to life. Feel the vibrations against your breastbone where once, the tumor hid in your chest. Close your eyes and remind yourself, the tumor is gone. The cancer is gone. The nun only danced in her lurid cousin's imagination. One day soon, she will be free. And I will be free too. Free of the resentment. Free of the stories that haunt me.