Thirteen Octoberish Pilgrimages

For the past couple of years, I've written posts about things Octoberish: books, movies, and music that put me in a pleasurably melancholy mood. I'm not much for Halloween itself, but I do love the mystery and sehnsucht that (for me) herald autumn. Think more Misty Mountains than Mordor, if you get my drift. 

Christian (above, in a photo taken by his friend, Emily) asked me whether I was going to do an Octoberish post this year. I had to think hard about what I'd list this time, having previously covered the most obvious ground. Then it hit me: pilgrimages. What could be more Octoberish than being a stranger in a strange land? Below, I'll list evocative, forlorn places around the world that I'd like to visit. I decided I wouldn't include any place I've already been, like Tintern Abbey or Eureka. The yearning is part of the fun. 


Château de Gudanes

Sometime last year, I first read about this castle, located in a remote corner of southwestern France; I've been following it on Instagram ever since. An Australian family bought the abandoned château a few years ago and is now in the process of painstakingly restoring it. Every photo they post could inspire a book.



Japan's "haunted forest of death": need I say more? No, really: go read about it. Freaky.


Zverglgarten, Salzburg, Austria

Another location that needs little explanation, this 18th-century garden filled with statues modeled after real dwarves at the Mirabell Palace is clearly an ideal setting for a creepy children's series. To my mind, the statues are just this side of clowns and marionettes.


Elephanta Caves, India

Located on an island near Mumbai, these caves filled with ornate sculptures that date to the fifth century AD are now a UNESCO World Heritage site. I love this photo, taken in the 1870s. Indiana Jones should have explored this place.


Detroit, Michigan

Nope, not prosaic in the least. My son James once said, "There are only two things to do in Detroit: meet Eminem and get shot." Despite his (widely shared) pessimism, Detroit fascinates me. I'm not alone; it's recently been the filming location for several post-apocalyptic or horror films. The link above leads to much more photographic goodness. 


Noisy Castle, Belgium

After spending a fortune on it, the Liedekirke-Beaufort family only occupied their opulent summer home for about forty years. During World War II, it briefly housed German troops, and actual combat took place on its grounds during the Battle of the Bulge. In the 1950s, it became a convalescent home for children, but was abandoned sometime thereafter. (Think of the possibilities, ghost-wise.) Now there's a struggle between the department of Celles, which wants to preserve the building, and the castle's current owners, who threaten to demolish it. Perish the thought.


The Louisiana Bayous

The bayous have given rise to countless urban legends, folktales, and ghost stories. And then there are the alligators. I don't know what autumn is like in Louisiana, but I'd love to find out.


Dark Hedges, Northern Ireland

Unsurprisingly, I haven't been able to avoid heavy inclusion of the British Isles on my list. Among the many places I'd love to visit in Erin are Moore Hall, where the photograph for the cover of Dispirited was taken, and the twisty, fabulous Dark Hedges.  


Devil's Bridge, Ardino, Bulgaria

I could do an entire blog post on the many so-called Devil's Bridges the world over, but this is my current favorite. Ardino looks to be pretty much in the middle of nowhere, which makes it all the more appealing for my purposes.


Castell Coch, Wales

Apparently, untold wealth + several centuries = Octoberish for me, though the portion of this massive Welsh castle visible is only about a hundred years old. As if I needed another reason to visit Tongwynlais


Svartifoss, Iceland

Its name means "Black Fall." Its uniqueness derives from those natural hexagonal pillars of crystalline lava that flank the waterfall itself. Remote and peaceful, it looks like a place Merlin would have loved. 


The Isle of Skye

There's the haunting "Skye Boat Song." And the legends of "The Old Man of Storr." Everything I know about Skye speaks of melancholy and what C.S. Lewis called "northernness." 

The Yorkshire Moors

Undoubtedly in an effort to attract tourists, the official website makes the moors look sunny and bright. But Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Secret Garden, Nicholas Nickleby, and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell tell us otherwise, don't they? Don't be fooled by modern propaganda; the moors are a place where anything magical and mysterious might happen. 

Oooh, now I have all kinds of story ideas humming through my head. I'd better finish this and go write them all down in my idea journal before they fade away. I'm much indebted to the brilliant website Atlas Obscura for some of the details and images above; if you want to lose an hour or four, follow the link.

What melancholy place most strikes your fancy?



All nine of us (plus Moneypenny!) the day we left to take James to the MTC. Anne couldn't manage a smile.

The years just keep rolling around, don't they?

Our house has experienced all kinds of upheaval in the past several months. We went from having seven kids living at home to just four. We got a new roof and are having solar panels installed. And I was accepted into a Master's of Fine Arts program in Writing at Vermont College of the Fine Arts!

No, I'm not deserting the family and moving to New England for two years. Vermont College offers a low residency program, which means I'll travel to Montpelier (oh, darn) for ten days straight each semester, then do the bulk of my work with my professors through the mail. I'm so excited to work with VCFA's amazing faculty to improve my fiction writing. 

I start classes in January, and I'm glad I have a bit of time beforehand. I have a long-ish commissioned piece of fiction that must be finished by then, for one thing. More on that in a post to come. For another thing, we're starting the long slide into the holidays this week, and I'm trying to whip my routines into shape little by little in preparation. 

Update on the kids: Christian, our oldest, graduated from college in May and moved home while he looked for a job. He landed a temporary gig working on the campaign of a Virginia state senator, and left for the East Coast on August 24th. The job ends on Election Day at the beginning of November, and then he'll be on the hunt for more permanent work. But he's enjoying himself and learning a lot.

Mid-July, our second oldest, James, left on a two-year mission for our church. His assignment? The France Paris mission, which comprises the northern half of the hexagon. (The southern half is the France Lyon mission.) He spent six weeks in the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, then left for France on August 30th. He's currently assigned to the Parisian suburb of Évry, and he's having a wonderful time. The work is hard, but fulfilling; his letters have been delightful. 

And then our foster daughter, Aolani, got a job in Hawaii and left the second week of September. She's delighted to be living her dream, and already has her Hawaiian driver's license. After two years with us and her high school graduation in May, she felt ready to fly, and we are so proud of her. 

Four kids at home. I haven't had that few in eleven years, and back then, they were all little. Though teenagers are as demanding as toddlers, family life feels a little like a cake walk most days. I'm not doubling recipes anymore; in fact, I often have leftovers. It's quieter around here, that's for sure. Less homework to supervise, fewer papers to edit. I miss my big three, but it's nice to have more time to focus on those who remain.

Speaking of which, they (Hope, 16; Tess, 14; Daniel, 11; and Anne, 7) decided they needed to switch bedrooms all around, so we're in the midst of a massive purge/declutter to get ready for the big shuffle. The fun never ends! Hope and Tess are at high school together, Daniel has started middle school, and Anne-the-caboose still has a ways to go at the elementary school. Moneypenny and I walk her there every morning, then go on a long, circuitous ramble on the way home. 

Decluttering, redefining, redecorating...I've had (virtual) help and inspiration from Marie Kondo, Alison May, and Martha Cilley. I'm trying to streamline my daily obligations even as I lighten our material load. Adding the Master's degree program to my schedule in January means I'll have to be very disciplined and organized, so I'm starting now. I want my house and life to remain peaceful, even as I tackle this new challenge--and I don't want sweet Patrick or the kids to suffer at my expense. 

Though it doesn't yet feel like fall here in Southern California, I love the sense of renewal that the new school year always brings. Here's hoping I'll be prepared to navigate the transtions to come with grace! 

Moneypenny in the jacaranda litter. I need to copy her poise and dignity.


Ten Great Reasons to Live in L.A.

It's no secret that I miss the New York. What do I miss about it? Pretty much everything. I was constantly near tears when we visited this summer. Our friends and family, the seasons, the culture, the food...It has been hard to leave all those things behind. 

And then there's France. I actively hope that we can move there in 15 years or so, and I try on a daily basis to prepare for that, language-wise and otherwise. 

But I'm here now. I knew moving to Los Angeles was the right thing for our family, and Patrick has never been happier in his work. And I believe strongly in savoring and living in the moment, even while preparing for a different future. As I've struggled to adjust to life in Southern California--finding zen despite the traffic, enduring the relentless sun, dealing with homesickness--I've identified at least ten great reasons to be here and be happy about it. Some are general, while a few are personal. See what you think.

10) It's always easy to be a dog owner here. 

As much as I love the seasons on the East Coast, I'm not sure I'd want to own a dog there, where every element must be braved to ensure dogs' comfort and hygeine. Here, my morning walks with Moneypenny (above right) are delightful. It's almost always cool and pleasant, with no violent weather to endure. This may sound like a small thing, but since I spend nearly an hour walking Penny almost every single day, it's a significant portion of my time, and I appreciate the ease and convenience.

9) Excellent ethnic grocery stores are close by--and mad inexpensive.

My favorite of these is 99 Ranch Market, a Chinese supermarket less than ten minutes from our house. The fish, poultry, meat, and produce are amazingly priced and much fresher than what you find in more mainstream stores. Ditto goes for Baja Ranch, which is just a little farther away. (Fresh, house-made tortillas...drool....) And when we want to make sushi at home? We go to Mitsuwa to get all the essentials. I can never resist trying new things--the Asian cookies, the Mexican drinkable yogurt. I don't love shopping, but these stores make it more of an adventure.

8) The Pacific Ocean is better than the Atlantic.

It's true. The waves and tides are more interesting, the topography is more varied and wild. The abundance of beaches can't be beat. And then there are the sunsets. We don't get to the ocean all that often, but when we do, the Pacific refreshes my soul. 

8a) Corgi Beach Day

7) White flowers are my favorite.

For a good portion of the year, jasmine, mock orange, all kinds of citrus, and gardenias are blooming in our yard and neighborhood. Their exotic, bewitching scents fill the air, making every inhalation a luscious treat. Oh, and the datura. Last night, we were watching a movie in our room, and as usual, our French doors were wide open to let in the evening air. The datura beneath our balcony, which releases its fragrance mainly at night, was out of control scent-wise. Bliss. 

7a) We sleep with our windows open nearly year-round.

As hot as it gets in the summer, it's almost always cool enough to turn off the A/C at night. And, you know, winter doesn't really exist here. I love to fall asleep looking out at the palm trees and the city lights far beyond. It's like living in a treehouse, and it's amazing.

6) We never run out of terrific, inexpensive restaurants to try.

It's true that great Italian food is scarce and great French food is almost nonexistent. (But we've squirreled out a few favorites in that regard, so we'll get by.) But when it comes to Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Mexican options, the San Gabriel Valley is a treasure trove. Oh, the dumplings; ah, the scallion pancakes, tacos, beef rolls, banh mi, and pho. I mine two excellent food blogs: 626 Foodettes and Gastronomy, for ideas, and haven't been steered wrong yet. Also: donuts and burgers. In these things, L.A. excels. (But don't get me started on In n Out. It's not good and never will be.)

5) I love me some Trader Joe's.

Here's another great thing about L.A. that may seem trivial, but affects our life for the better on a daily basis. (And I fully realize that 30% of this list concerns food. That shouldn't surprise anyone who knows me.) I'm at Trader Joe's at least three times a week for lovely dairy, produce, and other groceries that make life good. Just this week, we discovered Thomcord grapes, a hybrid of sweet, crunchy Thompson and luscious, full-bodied Concord. Insanely delicious and affordable. They'll likely only be around for a few weeks, because Trader Joe's likes to focus on seasonal stuff, but we're eating them while we can. 

We're doubly fortunate, because Trader Joe's is notorious for having horrendous parking options--or lack thereof. If I lived in Toluca Lake, for example, I'd likely only walk to TJ's. But our local branch is close, convenient, and has ample and sane parking, which again is a bigger deal than it may appear.

4) The independent bookstores and movie houses are the best.

I've never been to a better bookstore than Vroman's. It boasts a huge selection of wonderful books, intelligent staff reviews and recommendations, lovely stationery and gifts, international magazines, and a really cool program that rewards the community with every purchase you make--Vroman's rocks. But then there's Once Upon a Time in Montrose, Kinokuniya downtown, San Marino Toy and Book, and a host of others over on the West Side that I haven't even gotten to explore. Yet.

Movie-wise, we favor either ArcLight, a local, upscale chain, for mainstream movies, or Laemmle for independent and foreign movies. I love them both.

4a) Also: the Pasadena library is great: branches all over town, and the ability to order any book in the Pasadena/Glendale system online. The Central Branch in Old Town is gorgeous. 

3) L.A. has given my children opportunites they didn't have in New York. 

Specifically, my younger four have become avid, skillful swimmers. Hope and Tess swim and play water polo in Pasadena High School's aquatic program, and Daniel and Anne are on the town swim team here in Sierra Madre. They're fit and having a great time. Marching band and orchestra are two other activities that weren't available to us in New York. And I doubt that James would have decided on UC Berkeley had we been on the East Coast--and it has turned out to be the perfect place for him to attend college. 

2) I'm closer to my family.

We miss Patrick's family in New Jersey terribly; there's nothing good about that. Visits with my family, however, have gotten much easier. My mother is in Reno, my grandmother is in St. George, and nine of my ten siblings are in the San Francisco Bay Area (2), Portland (2), Utah (2), and Arizona (3). This was a blessing when my father died, but being closer to my family under non-tragic circumstances has also been a boon. And we've even seen Patrick's family from Texas a lot more often. 

1) I've made life-changing friends.

Again, it's a bitter thing to be so far away from people I cherish in New York. Four groups of people have saved me. We are surrounded by kind, generous, interesting neighbors. My amazing book group is full of diverse, fascinating women who treasure each other and make excellent conversation (and meals). My world-class writing group (above)--I can't even believe these famous, skilled ladies want me around, but I've learned so much from our weekly meetings. And a few stalwart friends at church, who both understand and inspire us. I can't imagine life without any of these people--and I would never have met them if we hadn't moved here. 

I wrote this post mainly as a count-your-blessings exercise, a reminder to ground me either when the challenges of living here loom large, or when being away from New York seems intolerable (friends; bagels; autumn leaves). But maybe a few other immigrants to the Southland will find it helpful. If so, let me know by leaving a comment.  


Stunts and House Finches

Nellie Bly, one of my heroes. Image from Wikipedia

I have a great weakness for stunt journalism. From Nellie Bly to Bill Buford to Gretchen Rubin--I'll read it all. I'm entranced by the stories of people choosing to go without seemingly essential things for a year or more, or attempting to read all of the Encyclopedia Britannica or the complete works of James Joyce, or electing to abandon their workaday lives to buy a failing/abandoned/ancient chateau/hostelry/dairy farm in Maine/Tuscany/Provence. 

The fun of it is the vicarious experience, the insider's view. Every time I finish something from the genre, I wish I could think up my own stunt, write about it, and get it published. But I haven't come up with anything original yet--at least not anything my family would put up with. (The closest I've come to stunt journalism is The Great Cinnamon Roll Project.)

Now, I'm sure there are some who would consider my daily life to be as foreign and as challenging as some of these stunts. After all, it's not every day you meet an actively publishing writer who also teaches five days a week and is the primary caregiver to five children--with two more in college. Of course, none of that seems remarkable to me, because I live it--and I didn't take any of it on for the sole purpose of spinning a good yarn about it later. It's just my life (and, unlike the above stunts, there's no end in sight).  

I've recently jumped into something rather stunt-like, however. I'm about two thirds of the way through a Sixty-Day Challenge at Bikram Yoga Pasadena. (If you like, you can read my daily diary of the experience.) To the outsider, even one session of Bikram yoga might seem like a stunt; each class entails ninety minutes working through twenty-six yoga asanas and two breathing exercises (all done twice) in a room that is heated to 105 degrees F with 40% humidity.

But Bikram aficionados try to make it to class three to five times per week, and will on occasion take on a thirty- or sixty-day challenge: doing a session every. Single. Day. For a month or two. It's that simple.

Except it's not, not if you have a life as busy as mine. Not even, apparently, if you're single and have a flexible work schedule, as Paige Williams and Aimee Macovic both were/had when they did their own Sixty-Day Challenges. Exercise this intense is demanding for the beginner, and its effects are cumulative. Ninety minutes really means more like two and a half hours when you count the prep, travel, and recovery time. Eating needs to be built around the classes, too; you don't want to eat for a couple of hours beforehand, and you don't feel like it for a long while afterward. And then there's the hydrating (bathroom), hydrating (bathroom), hydrating (bathroom). 

Given all my responsibilities, the stars really need to align for me to get to the yoga studio consistently. Sick kids, booked-solid days, and family trips to Disneyland--in other words, reality--all need to be taken into account.

Fortunately, there's a provision for days missed: you simply make up the class by doing two in one day. Which I've done twice now. Which is brutal. And which I'll have to do three times more by April 29th in order to complete my own personal Challenge.

(I have to finish! I already ordered the T-shirt.)

So, why take on something so difficult, if my life is already so complicated? I won't go into the details of some nagging health challenges, but that was definitely a factor. The bigger issue, though, is that I hope that a regular Bikram practice will be a catalyst for me in my writing life--which is really just an outgrowth of my mental/emotional/spiritual life.

Catalysts fascinate me; it's one of the reasons I love stunt journalism. What's the touchstone that allows people to make wholesale changes in their lives; whence cometh the paradigm shift? Can it be pinpointed? Can it be engineered, or does it need to drop from the sky? Can people really redefine who they are through a series of choices? Can they make the changes stick? I hope so; I choose to believe so. I've read about many others for whom Bikram has been a catalyst--for healing, for renewed energy and perspective, for professional pursuits. I figured I'd give it a try. (It is, after all, more reasonable than sailing around the world or buying a B&B in Fiji.) 

Forty days into the Challenge, I'm still floundering writing-wise, but clarity is slowly coming. Change is coming, too: new attitudes, recommitment. I have renewed faith that I need to keep working at it: keep writing, keep submitting, keep writing some more. 

As I write this post, house finches are building a nest under the eaves of my balcony, a mere six feet away from where I sit. The French doors are open, and the cool April air wafts around me. The finches--one ruby-headed, one brown, both lovely--show up with a piece of dried grass or hair or dryer lint and disappear behind the beam where their project nestles. They reappear and search for something else--just the right piece of material. I've seen them pick up and drop the same thing several times, fluttering around to consider it in between. They warble to each other as they go. Will it work? Can we make it fit? Is there something better?

The finches remind me of myself as I draft and edit. Cutting, pasting, reworking, starting from scratch when the whole thing falls apart. Or in yoga, struggling to find my balance, my edge, a new level of strength and grace. Piece by piece, moment by moment, breath by breath, choice by choice, building a new reality.

Because as energizing as the vicarious thrill of reading is, real life is ideally at least as satisfying--and if it's not, perhaps the reading inspires us to make changes necessary to bring our real lives into line with our hopes and dreams. Or to change our hopes and dreams to fit the awesome life we're already living--if we choose to see it that way. When it comes right down to it, the finches and I don't do what we're doing as a stunt; our work and our choices are who we're becoming. 


Let It Be: The Best of 2014 

I'm sitting in my snuggly bed with the Rose Parade on TV. It's a gorgeous, if chilly, morning--perfect for reflecting on the year that has just past. So much good!

Our sweet foster daughter moved in with us full time back in April. I had two short stories, two essays, and a novella published or accepted for publication. (My short story "Spring Hill" won the Mormon Lit Blitz contest!) I was invited to join a legendary writing group. Patrick continues to love his job at Warner Brothers. We had a blissful trip to France. James started his first year of college (UC Berkeley), and Christian started his senior year of college (University of Mary Washington) after an exciting summer internship with the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C. 

We faced many struggles as well: James's diabetes diagnosis; my own (solvable) health issues; our cat Goldberry's death; and the everyday challenge of having five kids at home in three different schools. But we got through it all (hopefully) with grace. Below are all the things that helped--good books, music, entertainment, and food: 

Favorite Books

10) I'll Drink to That, by Betty Halbreich

9) Help for the Haunted, by John Searles

8) California Bones, by Greg van Eekhout

7) The House Next Door, by Anne Rivers Siddons

6) The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo

5) Letters to a Young Mormon, by Adam Miller

4) The Paper Magician/The Glass Magician, by Charlie N. Holmberg

3) Hild, by Nicola Griffith

2) The Magicians Trilogy, by Lev Grossman

1) The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis

Yes, I cheated a bit; #4 is two books, and #2 is three. Sue me. Don't sue me; read the books instead.

Caveat: I don't rank books by people I know. Outstanding examples that would have been vying for top spots this year: The Bishop's Wife, by Mette Harrison; The Scholar of Moab, by Steven Peck; and All the Truth That's in Me, by Julie Berry. 

Most Disappointing Book

Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James

(Not the worst book this year; that would be Mockingjay.)

Favorite New Music 

Props to Christian for introducing me to #2 and #1. I can't get enough of these groups; check out their other songs as well.

5) "Tell the Ones I Love," by The Steep Canyon Rangers

4) "Uptown Funk," by Mark Ronson, featuring Bruno Mars

3) "Cut String Kite," by Fictionist

2) "Roll the Bones," Shakey Graves

1) "I've Been Loving You," by St. Paul and the Broken Bones

Favorite 2014 Movies

10) Cold in July

9) The Judge

8) Snowpiercer

7) Winter's Tale

6) Edge of Tomorrow

5) The Hundred-Foot Journey

4) The Grand Budapest Hotel

3) The Imitation Game

2) Interstellar

1) Ida

2014 movies that I haven't yet seen, but plan to see: American Sniper, Mr. Hublot, The Wind Rises, Locke, Million Dollar Arm, We Are the Best!, Borgman, Begin Again, Boyhood, Calvary, Magic in the Moonlight, The Trip to Italy, Le Grand Cahier, Jimi, Fury, Birdman, Big Hero Six, The Theory of Everything, The Babadook, Miss Julie, Mr. Turner, and Big Eyes. I'd better get going!

Favorite 2014 TV

5) The Leftovers

4) Gotham

3) True Detective

2) Modern Family

1) Call the Midwife

Favorite New Restaurants

3) Szechuan Impression in Alhambra

2) Auberge de Malo in Etrigny, France

1) The Church Key in West Hollywood

Budgetary constraints (two kids in college!) limited our restaurant adventures this year, but what we did eat out was spectacular. (And we had a lot of great homemade meals, too--especially in France.)

Resolutions for 2015? I plan on greater focus on my writing and a massive decluttering project à la Marie Kondo (see book #6 above). We'll see Christian graduate from college; Aolani graduate from high school; Tess graduate from middle school; and Daniel graduate from elementary school. Hope will be old enough to go to the prom. James will leave on his mission sometime in the middle of the summer. I'm sure that once again, it'll be a year to remember. Happy New Year!