When governments work as they should

An inspirational article in Sunday’s Sacramento Bee reminds us of what can be done when governments are composed of adults who are willing to work together toward a common goal.

An agreement between the California State Parks Department and local Indian tribal governments allowed an important ceremonial structure, closed for five years because of fire damage, to be reopened for an annual all-tribes gathering for dance and ritual this past weekend.

In question was the roundhouse at Indian Grinding Rock State Park, or Chaw’se in the Miwok language.

Chaw'se Roundhouse, photo by Mary Mussell.  When this photo was taken, Jan. 2011, the structure was closed

Chaw’se Roundhouse, photo by Mary Mussell. When this photo was taken, Jan. 2011, the structure was closed

The state said the cedar roof on the roundhouse, which is 60′ wide, had to be replaced, but the tribes could not agree on how to approach the task without disturbing ancestral spirits. Finally, Adam Dalton, chairman of the Jackson Rancheria Miwoks, offered to bring in a native construction crew, to work in cooperation with a state appointed structural engineer, while dismantling the damaged parts of the roundhouse with proper ceremonies.

Local tribes gathered each fall for thousands of years in the Grinding Rocks area to harvest the abundant acorns.  The park takes its name from the 1185 mortar holes left in the soft limestone slabs, where native women ground the acorns.  Some of the petroglyphs, carved between the mortar holes, are 2,000-3,000 years old.

Grinding Rock Mortar Holes

Grinding Rock Mortar Holes

The park, some 50 miles southeast of Sacramento, near Jackson, is one of my favorite destinations in the foothills, especially at this time of year or in the spring.  If you’re ever in the area, it’s well worth a visit.  Detailed information and history can be found on the park’s website.

Now, in addition to natural beauty and historical interest, the grounds at Chaw’se stand for the way governments are supposed to work.

Reflections on Story Water

My second post on this blog, on July 1, 2010, featured a poem called “Story Water” by the 13th century Persian mystic, Rumi.  It came to mind in the light of recent events.

Friday morning, as I worked on post #420, I got up for coffee and flipped on the radio.  The post concerned what folklore can teach us about living in difficult times.  After I heard of the murdered children, I put it aside.  Some events seem too much for stories.  Yet reflection later reminded me that stories are always with us, one way or another.  Rumi knew this.  He knew how the stories we hear feed our inner tales and the importance of choosing wisely where to place our attention.

On friday night, hundreds of people in Newtown, Connecticut went to church.  As I heard how they turned to a story of hope in a dark time, I thought of one of the first such stories I told myself.

One day in first grade, a classmate went home sick.  The following monday, the teacher told us she died.  I had seen dead birds in the woods behind our house, but that was the first time I realized death could visit at any time.  It could steal our friends and loved ones away in a heartbeat.

The dead girl’s name was Cindy Erwin, and she was the minister’s daughter.  I figured her father’s vocation gave her an in with Jesus, and she would be fine.  I never worried about Cindy, although I’ve never forgotten her name.  I knew it was the rest of us who were in trouble.

Stories like this, the ones we tell ourselves, shape our lives in ways we can barely imagine.  Everyone young or old who lived through events at Sandy Hook School or watched them unfold on TV will remember the day as long as they live and tell themselves stories about what happened and why and what it means.

According to Rumi, few of us know the answers with certainty.  That’s why we have stories.  That’s why they matter so much.  I think he would have agreed that in the end, the world is made of stories, so it matters very much which ones we tell each other and ourselves.  In ways we don’t understand, they shape the world as it unfolds.


A story is like water
that you heat for your bath.

It takes messages between the fire
and your skin. It lets them meet,
and it cleans you!

Very few can sit down
in the middle of the fire itself
like a salamander or Abraham.
We need intermediaries.

A feeling of fullness comes,
but usually it takes some bread
to bring it.

Beauty surrounds us,
but usually we need to be walking
in a garden to know it.

The body itself is a screen
to shield and partially reveal
the light that’s blazing
inside your presence.

Water, stories, the body,
all the things we do, are mediums
that hide and show what’s hidden.

Study them,
and enjoy this being washed
with a secret we sometimes know,

and then not.

Reflecting on 400 posts

It’s taken me a while to write about reaching this milestone, partly because I’ve been busy, and partly because it’s hard to wrap my mind around a number this big.  The only wise thought that comes to mind is, “Wow, that’s a lot of posts.”

Writing has always been a mode of discovery for me, a way of digging below the surface noise of the mind and excavating what I am really thinking/feeling/imagining at any particular point in time.  I like the image of archeology – writing as inner spade work.

Fiction most often reveals where imagination wants to go, while blogging typically tells me what I really think about the topic at hand.  I don’t much care for this western way of categorizing awareness.  I prefer the Tibetan conception where  “mind” resides at the heart chakra and includes thought, feeling, perception, imagination, and intuition – all the shifting contents of consciousness.  That seems closer to our lived experience.  When I say, “This is me,” I point to my heart not my head.

But I digress.

I am grateful to every one of my readers – I wouldn’t be doing this without you!  The realization that others find something useful in what I write is as thrilling now as it was when I first wrote stories in grade school.  I was especially gratified with your interest and encouragement for my exploration of Njal’s Saga.  I invested a lot of time and effort, and I’ll remember your response the next time such a major project tugs at my attention.

I don’t have any clear roadmap for the next 100 posts – it wouldn’t be exploration if I knew where I was going.  I hope you’ll ride along and continue to post your wonderful reactions!

Two short story competitions

If you happen to have a 4000 word short story in your drawer all ready to go, you’re in luck.

I haven’t been paying too much attention to writing contests this summer, so the deadline for the 2012 Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Competition – September 14 – snuck up on me. Here are the details if you have a piece you can polish in two weeks:  http://www.writersdigest.com/popularfictionawards?et_mid=576916&rid=3017168

Of greater interest to me is the short short story contest for works up to 1500 words, with deadline set at November 15. That’s enough time to create something from scratch. Not that short shorts are easy! They’re very challenging but I find them compelling to write as well – they’re like a a small sketch, a place to test an idea and reshape it before committing to a longer format. Here is the link to this contest.  http://www.writersdigest.com/competitions/short-short-story-competition?et_mid=576916&rid=3017168

The word count may be limited but the prizes are not.  First place wins $3000, publication in Writer’s Digest, and an expense paid trip to the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York next year.

Worth thinking about!

American Literary Merit Short Story Contest

A friend on a writer’s mailing list sent this notice of the ALMA short story contest.  First prize is $1000 and inclusion in the ALMA Short Story Compilation for 2013.  Word limit is 3000.  Due date is Nov. 12, 2012.  The entry fee is $15 before Aug. 12 and $20 after that.  Here are the details:


Angels Incognito

The local California Writer’s Club branch hosts an annual short-short story contest every year.  I hadn’t intended to enter until this morning when one of those end-of-the-night inspirations slipped into awareness.  A story idea:  A reprobate is convinced that “they” are stealing our memories, and he is probably right.

I wrote the opening with relative ease.  We’ll see how it goes; openings are easy, but I also have a great fondness for this kind of character – the guardian or the wise one whose appearance is humble or even repulsive.  You meet him – he is most often male – in various guises in movies and fiction:

Mel Gibson in "Conspiracy Theory," 1997

He is found  in myth and scripture.  John the Baptist is a classic example, who must have dismayed a lot of the city people who came out to hear him.

John the Baptist

Tilopa, (989 – 1069) one of Tibetan Buddhism’s greatest teachers, was expelled from a monastery and made his living as a sesame pounder, a pretty low rung on the social ladder.


Once in a while, you meet someone like this in real life.  I read an account by a man who wanted to go to India in search of a guru, but then found his teacher, a Zen master, earning his living by fixing washing machines in a laundromat 12 miles away.

When my wife was a social worker at Loaves and Fishes, a local center that helps the homeless, she was startled one day as a small hispanic man climbed out of a dumpster in a parking lot. Significantly, his name was Jesus. Mary’s eye’s still light up when she tells what a joyful man he was.  The meeting was so unexpected, but left such a vivid memory, that she thinks of him whenever the subject of angels comes up.

These reflections led me to think of one of my all time favorite fantasy novels, King of Morning, Queen of Day, by Ian McDonald, 1991.  The story features a pair of otherworldly guardians who look a lot like bums as they craft powerful magical charms from bottle caps and debris.  McDonald came to mind when he published his latest novel in December.  I haven’t yet read the new one, but I’ll discuss King of Morning next time.

Meanwhile, has anyone else encountered an angel, a wise man or woman, a mentor or a guardian who showed up disguised as an “ordinary” person but then turned out to be anything but?

Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition

I just received this announcement for the 81st annual Writer’s Digest writing competition, seeking entries in ten categories:

  • Inspirational Writing (Spiritual/Religious)
  • Memoirs/Personal Essay
  • Magazine Feature Article
  • Genre Short Story (Mystery, Romance, etc.)
  • Mainstream/Literary Short Story
  • Rhyming Poetry
  • Non-rhyming Poetry
  • Stage Play
  • Television/Movie Script
  • Children’s/Young Adult Fiction

As one would expect, there are nice prizes and nominal entry fees, with the top ten winners in each category to be named in the November, 2012 issue of Writer’s Digest.  Here is a link to the announcement page, where you can find links to the rules and regulations, as well a place to sign up for notification of the many contests WD holds every year, especially for short fiction and poetry.


If you’re interested in the Children’s/YA section, you will notice that although the category is listed on the main page, details such as word count are missing from the rules and the FAQs.  There is a “Contact us” link that gives phone number and email for questions like this.

Good luck to everyone.  I know several people who have been listed in the “top ten,” and it’s quite an honor, since the Writer’s Digest competitions always draw a large number of entries.

Structure in Folktales, continued

Red Riding Hood, by Gustave Dore

In my last post, I said I was going to review some folktales to see if any conventions of the “three act structure,” used in contemporary fiction and cinema, apply.  Lest I be accused of hubris, I did not say I was going to be systematic about this.  My qualifications are simply a lifetime of love for this stuff.  Here are a few random observations.

The first thing I noticed – and I should have expected this – was the apples and oranges nature of my comparison between long fiction and short, between modern novels and screenplays and the kinds of tales you find in Grimm and other folklore collections.

Some longer epics do mesh with the three act structure.  In Homer’s Iliad, plot point #1 is Paris taking Helen to Troy, and plot point #2 is the Trojans wheeling the horse into the city – this is how the 2004 movie, Troy, is structured too.  It seems the three act structure only really fits longer fiction.  This leads to the question of whether the concepts apply to short fiction at all and to folktales in particular.

Every one of the folktales I reviewed has what Syd Fields called, an “inciting incident,” an event or situation that sets the action in motion.  The king is sick, the princess is missing, a dragon is loose on the land.  Often this is right where the tale begins, without any other preamble.

In terms of the major plot points, most of the folktales I looked at only have one.  Some have two and a few do not have any.  Are there any plot points, in the sense of a major crossroad, in the tale of Red Riding Hood?  Not really.  The unfortunate girl obeys her mother – “Take this basket to grandmother” – and events roll on to their unfortunate conclusion.

Cinderella has a single plot point.  The fairy godmother asks, “Do you want to go to the ball?”  When Cinderella says yes, her happy fate unrolls like destiny.

Cinderella by Edmund Dulac

Another common folktale set up has just one decision point:  three brothers or three sisters set off on quest.  Each of them meets an “insignificant” or repellant creature as they set out.  The older siblings are arrogant and come to an unfortunate end.  The younger sibling behaves with respect, and the creature’s advice and boons are key to fulfilling the quest and often finding love and riches as well.

A Grimm’s fairytale, “The Water of Life,” is a good example.  The king is sick and only the water of life will heal him.  Two brothers set out, but disparage an “ugly little dwarf” who offers advice.  They wind up stuck – literally – in a mountain pass.  The youngest brother, who is open to help, receives it in abundance, both for the immediate quest and in overcoming the treachery of his brothers later on.  Although the action is rather complex, the only real decision the brothers face is whether or not to befriend the little man at the side of the road.  That choice determines their fate.

Beauty and the Beast by Warwick Goble

Some stories with two plot points echo the three act structure.  An example is, “The Pedlar of Swaffham,” which I discussed here a year ago:  http://wp.me/pYql4-85.  A poor pedlar in the English village of Swaffham dreams he will find gold if he travels to London Bridge.  Unlike most people who do not act on their dreams, he decides to go (plot point #1).  He spends three days waiting fruitlessly.  His decision to stick it out, to believe in his dream, is the second key plot point and is rewarded when a shopkeeper asks what he’s doing.  When the pedlar tells him, the shopkeeper says dreams are a lot of foolishness:  “Why just last night I dreamed of a bag of gold under the peddlar’s oak in the village of Swaffham, wherever that is, but you don’t see me running all over the countryside, do you?” 

A story like this seems so modern in it’s emphasis on trusting oneself and following dreams, it may be surprising to know that Rumi recorded the first version 900 years ago.  In other variations, the poor man travels to Baghdad, Jerusalem, or Krakow.  Still, in conforming (sort of) to the three act structure, “The Pedlar of Swaffham” is the exception and not the rule.


Every story has a beginning, middle, and end.  How long the sections are and how we move between them is the province of structure.  If you’ve ever heard a good storyteller, you’ve seen them adjust the pacing to match the mood of the audience.  You’ve seen gesture, expression, and silence used to enhance the tale in ways a written transcription can never capture.

It’s easier to gain an intuitive sense of how to tell a story aloud than to write one, and easier to structure a short story than a novel or screenplay.  Some people may gain a sense of how to structure a novel by reading them, but for the rest of us, constructions like the three act structure form a useful skeleton to build a story.  It isn’t the secret of what makes a novel or movie compelling, but I find it a useful bridge to that destination.

In a similar way, structure alone does not explain the magic in my favorite folktales.  For that I will have to slow down and consider each one more closely.  And there is a topic for more than one future post!

Puss In Boots by Gustave Dore