Searching for the Wild Snow

I’m getting ready to head out and go searching for the wild snow.

Once upon a time, perhaps thirty years ago, more than two feet of snow fell in the desert, but I’ve only seen flurries a couple of times since I’ve been here, and whatever stuck to the ground disappeared as soon as the sun came out. So, when a friend invited me to go snow hunting, I gladly accepted. Snow!! Out here, where it seldom even rains, snow seems a mythical phenomenon. Dare I believe?

Desert Snow

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, andDaughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

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Zigzagging in Writing and Life

I walk in the desert, sometimes on straightaways, sometimes on hills. I learned something from the hill walks: she who goes up, must come down. And sometimes “down” means a very steep grade. I discovered that it was much easier to get to the bottom of these steep hills if I zigzagged from one edge of the path to the other. By descending diagonally, I can cut the steepness of the hill and am able keep my footing.

This seems to be a good metaphor for plot. While writing, we zigzag down an increasingly steep slope, never quite letting our readers know what direction they are traveling, but always keeping them on the path to the end. Or perhaps they are going up a hill, but the point is still the same: zigzagging.

I sent More Deaths Than One to hundreds of agents and editors, and the consensus was that my writing style was too matter-of-fact for the overly complicated plot. This from people who never read more than a few chapters. (Luckily for me, I finally found a publisher — Second Wind – who read the whole novel and understood what I wanted to accomplish.)

It could be that as readers head down the steep slope of my story, zigzagging from side to side, the plot does seem complicated, but when they reach the end and look back, they can see that the story is very simple. A straight path. A man discovers that what he knows about himself is a lie, and he sets out to discover the truth. Very simple. All the complications are simply the zigzagging path.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Echoes

Writers need to watch out for echoes — a duplication of words, phrases, effects, details, scenes that reverberate in readers’ minds and dilute the work. As an example: originally I’d written the first sentence of this blog as “Writers need to watch out for echoes — a duplication of words, phrases, effects, details that echo in readers’ minds and dilute the work,” but the second “echo” echoed the first and diluted the effect of both, so I changed the second “echo” to “reverberate.” In the same way, if you have two scenes that make the same point without adding anything new, then the scene is not only redundant, but echoes in readers’ minds, and makes them feel as if the story is going nowhere.

Sometimes, however, an echo can be used to good effect in writing, such as when you’re trying to play on a theme, but it’s especially effective in photography. A roof can be an interesting subject for an image, but showing the roof against an analogous background — peaks against peaks — can strengthen the image rather than dilute it.

There is no shortage of peaks around here — roof peaks, mountain peaks, hill peaks — and I was able to find shots of peaks perfectly echoed against peaks to illustrate my point.

peak to peak

peak to peak

peak to peak

peak to peak

peak to peak

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Fishing for Life: Another Hill to Climb

I’m still making an effort to fish for life, and that “fishing” so far has centered mostly around climbing hills. Today was no exception.

High on a hill over looking town are the ruins of a once magnificent house.

The house is on fenced private property, so a couple of days ago I tried to climb up the unfenced side of the hill. Being more of a hiker than a rockclimber, I didn’t quite make it. (Visions not of sugar plums but broken limbs danced in my head.)

Determined not to give up, today I found a break in the fence, and quite daringly climbed up the steep old driveway, but it turns out half the town uses that old road as a hiking trail, so all that derring-do went to waste.

Unfortunately, the ruins, while still fascinating, weren’t quite as attractive close up. Graffiti? Why? Doesn’t anyone have a sense of awe anymore? Is it necessary to desecrate everything? Apparently so.

Still, the house was fascinating, and the views magnificent. The hills in the background are my “backyard” where I go walking every day.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

The Wild Heart of the Desert

I met an old friend out in the desert today. It was nice seeing the Mojave green rattlesnake again since I hadn’t seen one for a couple of years. I didn’t even notice it at first. I was walking down the middle of a sandy path, minding my own business, when a hiss and a whirring rattle startled me. I stopped, looked around, and there it was, about eight feet away, sunning itself beyond the shadows of a creosote bush.

I edged away from the rattler, and it inched away from me, back into the protection of the bush. And then I continued my walk, a smile on my face. I don’t know why such encounters make me feel good, perhaps because it’s nice to know that there is a wild heart still beating beneath the calm veneer of the desert.

I also got to rediscover the truth: I am not afraid of snakes, just healthily wary, and rightly so. The Mojave green rattlesnake will not attack, but if disturbed or cornered, they will defend themselves. Apparently, bites occur if people accidentally step on a snake or purposely harass it, so if people are careful, they can keep from being bit.

I know people who will run down snakes if they see them in the road, and sometimes they even go hunting for them on the assumption that the only good snakes are dead snakes. The only time that makes sense to me is if the snakes leave the wilds of the desert for the tames of our neighborhoods, but that doesn’t happen very often.

Nor does it happen very often that I get to see such a fearsome creature, so meeting up with it has made my day.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Untaming Me and Embracing My Inner Savage

I watched The Sleeping Dictionary the other night, or at least as much of it as I have on tape. My life mate/soul mate recorded movies that he liked and often ended them before things got ugly, turning a painful movie into a touching one, so in my version, the story ends when John and Selima profess their love. (I had become so tuned to death and disappointment during his last years that I could not bear stories with unhappy endings or characters who fought instead of appreciating what they had. Watching his movies, I now understand he’d developed that same sensitivity. His version of Braveheart, for example, ends before William Wallace is tortured and killed.)

But I digress.

When the young headhunter first appeared on the scene in The Sleeping Dictionary, I was struck by his savagery. I don’t mean his cruelty — though today “savage” is synonymous with brutality, it originally came from a word that means “woods.” I’m referring to his elemental nature, his primal being, his untameness.

I am a highly civilized person. For the most part, I am considerate of others. I am never intentionally rude or bad mannered or insulting. I am not uncouth. I don’t make scenes in public (or private, for that matter). I seldom raise my voice. I listen more than I talk. I dress modestly. I use correct English and am not given to crudeties or foul language. If it’s in my power and nature, I almost always do what others ask. I try to be helpful. In other words, I am tame.

As I watched the movie, I wondered if the time had come to untame me, to embrace my inner primitive. I don’t know what or how to do that, but it’s something worth thinking about. I know your first thought — tattoos. Nope. Today tattoos are not a matter of primalness but of fad, and fad is the epitome of civilization.

It would be interesting to have totems, rituals, amulets that meant something to me and my life, that would help me connect to life or at least remind me of that connection. To find or develop such primal symbols, however, I would first need to know who I am, to know what meaning life has for me, but the death of my life mate/soul mate so devastated me that I no longer know who I am or how I connect to anything.

Now, as I write this, I realize that I don’t need to start a search for my inner primitive. I am already on that quest.

I walk in the desert (as primeval a place as there is around here) and pay attention to how my body and mind join to the earth. I feel how my feet connect with the ground (well, how my shoes connect. I am not so savage as to be willing to walk in rattlesnake country unshod). I feel the air coursing through my lungs, and the breezes touching my skin. I feel the heat of the sun and the coolness of my evaporating perspiration. I open my mind and feel new ideas flowing in and old ideas flowing out.

Maybe someday I will untame me — find out who I am at rock bottom and live according to my truth. And maybe I am living that way now.

Introduction to “Grief: The Great Yearning”

Grief: The Great Yearning, the book about my first year of grief has finally been published. I wrote this article during the summer following my life mate/soul mate’s death, long before I ever knew my writings about grief would be published, but with the addition of the last paragraph, it made the perfect introduction to the book. Grief: The Great Yearning is available from Amazon, Second Wind Publishing, and in various ebook formats from Smashwords.

Death came in the spring.

At the beginning of March, the doctors said that Jeff, my life mate—my soul mate—had inoperable kidney cancer and that he had six months to live. He had only three weeks. We’d spent thirty-four years together, and suddenly I was alone, unprepared, and totally devastated. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend the wreckage of my life. It wasn’t just he who died but “we.” There was no more “us,” no more shared plans and dreams and private jokes. There was only me.

Other losses compounded the misery. I had to sort through the accumulation of decades, dismantle what was left of our life, move from our home. We bereft are counseled not to make major changes during the first year after a significant loss—one’s thinking processes become muddled, leaving one prey to faulty logic and rash decisions—but I needed to go stay with my father for a while. Although he was doing well by himself, he was 93 years old, and it wasn’t wise for him to continue living alone.

I relocated from cool mountain climes to the heat of a southwestern community. Lost, heartbroken, awash in tears, I walked for hours every day beneath the cloudless sky, finding what comfort I could in the simple activity. During one such walk, I turned down an unfamiliar city street, and followed it . . . into the desert.

I was stunned to find myself in a vast wilderness of rocky knolls, creosote bushes, cacti, rabbits, lizards, and snakes. I’d been to the area several times during my mother’s last few months, but I’d spent little time outside. I hated the heat, the constant glare of the sun, the harsh winds. After Jeff died, however, that bleak weather, that bleak terrain seemed to mirror my inner landscape. Wandering in the desert, crying in the wilderness, I tried to find meaning in all that had happened. I didn’t find it, of course. How can there be meaning in the painful, horrific death of a 63-year-old man? I didn’t find myself, either. It was too soon for me to move on, to abandon my grief. I felt as if I’d be negating him and the life we led.

What I did find was the peace of the moment.

Children, most of whom know little of death and the horrors of life, live in the moment because they can—it’s all they have. The bereft, who know too much about death and the horrors of life, live in the moment because they must—it’s the only way they can survive.

During the first year after Jeff’s death, I lived as a child—moment to moment, embracing my grief, trying not to think about the future because such thoughts brought panic about growing old alone, trying not to think about the past because such thoughts reminded me of all I had lost.

And so went the seasons of my soul. The spring of death gave way to the summer of grief, and grief flowed into the fall and winter of renewal.

Grief: The Great Yearning is not a how-to but a how-done, a compilation of letters, blog posts, and journal entries I wrote while struggling to survive my first year of grief. As you journey through grief, I hope you will find comfort in knowing you are not alone. Whatever you feel, others have felt. Whatever seemingly crazy thing you do to bring yourself comfort, others have done. And, as impossible as it is to imagine now, you will survive.

Rubicon Ranch: A Collaborative Novel

I am involved in a wonderful project with eight other Second Wind authors. Rubicon Ranch is an ongoing collaborative novel that we are writing online. It is the story of people whose lives have been changed when a little girl’s body was found in the wilderness near the desert community of Rubicon Ranch. Was her death an accident? Or . . . murder! But who would want to kill a child? Everyone in this upscale housing development is hiding something. Everyone has an agenda. Everyone’s life will be different after they have encountered the Rubicon. Rubicon Ranch, that is.

Each of us writers is responsible for the development of our own characters. My character is Melanie Gray. She has traveled the world with her husband, a world-renowned photographer. Together they authored many coffee-table books (she did the writing, he the photographs). One of the books told about mountains of the world, one about rivers, one about oceans, one about forests, and now they have a contract to do deserts. After they rented a house in Rubicon Ranch to begin their in-depth study of the southwestern deserts, he died in a car accident.

Now, not only does Melanie have to deal with the pain of losing her husband and figuring out what she’s going to do for the rest of her life, she needs to fulfill the publishing contract or she’ll have to reimburse the publishers, which she cannot do because the advance is all but spent. Since she is not a photographer, she roams the desert bordering on Rubicon Ranch, taking hundreds of photos, hoping that a few of them will accidentally end up being as brilliant as her husband’s photos always were. She finds the child’s body and takes photos of the scene after calling 911. At first she is a suspect but once the Sheriff has ruled her out, he requests her help in reading the desert and desert-related clues. Still, the sheriff does not trust her completely, thinking she is hiding something.

Chapter 26: Melanie Gray — by Pat Bertram

Fury, like wildfire flashed through Melanie. Fury at the sheriff for paying his silly games when people were dead, fury at herself for playing his fool.

She’d been flattered that he thought she could help with his investigation, but apparently the only thing he’d been investigating was her and how to get in her panties. And she’d fallen for it. Cripes, what an idiot! All her resolve not to let him get to her had been for nothing.

And that whole seduction scene—”So maybe, when I need you to help me, I won’t have to bully you. You’ll cooperate with me because you understand that getting my job done honestly is the most important thing to me.” Did he believe his own drivel? And anyway, how could she help when he wasn’t doing anything? It had been two days since Riley died. Didn’t they say that if they didn’t catch a killer within the first forty-eight hours that chances are he or she would never be caught? And the sheriff had wasted those precious hours trying to seduce her.

She’d fallen for Alexander’s crap and apparently she hadn’t learned anything, because here she was again, playing straight-woman for another unprincipled clown. Alexander, at least, had offered her adventure and marriage, and for a while he had even been faithful. But Seth? What did he have to offer? Nothing. He was married, and he was a taker. He’d take everything she had, which wasn’t much, just her integrity, and she’d be damned before she let him tarnish that with a tawdry affair. She’d seen the look in his eyes when he’d said “And I know you’d rather claw out my eyes and slash my throat than let me touch you.” And that look had belied his words. He seemed to think all he had to do was pretend to know her and she’d fall into his oh, so understanding arms.

“What?” he said, sounding as if he didn’t know exactly what was going through her mind. How could he not? He, Sheriff Seth Bryan, the great detective.

“As if you don’t know.” Melanie spit the words from between clenched teeth.

Seth’s brows drew together in an almost believable though comic look of confusion. “That’s such a typical womanish remark. I thought you were different.”

“You thought I was gullible and naïve. You thought since I put up with Alexander’s philandering, I’d put up with yours, too, but that is not going to happen. Only a fool gets involved with a married man, and whatever you think, I am no fool.”

Seth held up his hands, palms toward her. “Whoa.”

“Being a widow does not make me ripe for the plucking. I don’t need to be serviced like a bitch in heat. Believe me, the last thing I need in my life is a man, especially a married man. Calling it separate maintenance does not make you any less married.”

He flashed his teeth. “So you do like me. You’re protesting too much.”

“Not protesting enough, apparently, or else you wouldn’t have that silly grin on your face.”

He lost the grin. “What’s going on here? I thought we were having a nice meal while we went over the case.”

“You should be going over the case with your deputies. They, at least, seem to understand how inappropriate it is for you to include me in your investigation. Unless I’m still a suspect and you’re trying to get me to let down my guard and confess?”

“I told you, you were never a suspect.”

“As if playing with me, gigging me as you called it, is any better. So let’s discuss the case. What were the results of the autopsy? Was Riley murdered or was it an accident? If she was murdered, how was it done and who did it? Were there drugs in her system? Have you interrogated her parents yet to find out what they’re hiding? Have you found out who the dead man is and what, if anything, he has to do with Riley’s murder? You pretty much ignored me when I said he looked liked Riley, but then, that’s understandable. I never got a good look at the girl. All I saw was her jaw line, her nose, and her eyebrows, so whatever I blurted out after seeing the man’s corpse has to be discounted. Did the same person kill both of them? Or were there two different killers? Or . . .” Melanie paused to grab the thought that flitted through her mind. “Did he kill Riley and someone else kill him?”

Seth picked up his sandwich, dipped an end in the au jus, bit off a piece, and chewed slowly.

Melanie nodded. “That’s what I thought. You’re all talk.” She deepened her voice and mimicked him. “‘We have to solve these murders.’ Yeah, like there really is a we. Well, there was a we, but that was Alexander and me. You and I will never be a we.” A cough shuddered through her torso. She took a long drink of water, hoping she wasn’t coming down with a cold but was merely dehydrated from the strong air-conditioning and her rare monologue.

Seth gave her a searching look, opened his mouth and then closed it again with what sounded like a resigned sigh. She wondered what he’d been going to say and why he thought better of it, then she let out a sigh of her own. It didn’t matter. She had enough to do with grieving and fulfilling her book contract. She had nothing left for the sheriff and his investigation. Whatever he might think, she really didn’t know anything. Well, that wasn’t strictly true. She did know one thing.

She threw her napkin on the table and stood, ready to flee.

Seth gaped at her. “What’s going on?”

“I’m going home, Sheriff Seth Bryan. I’m through with your games. You lied about investigating Alexander’s accident. I saw the photos in the newspaper and I visited the scene of the accident. There was nothing there to indicate that the crash had been anything other than an accident. Perhaps someone had tampered with the car, but the only way to find that out was to investigate the vehicle itself. And you didn’t care enough to check it out.”

***

An additional chapter of the book will be posted every Monday. Please join in the adventure — it should be fun! We don’t even know whodunit and won’t know until the end. You can find the earlier chapters here: Rubicon Ranch

Ten Things I Know to Be Absolutely Certain

Every time I publish a new post to this blog, I get suggestions for topics from WordPress. One such topic — ten things I know to be absolutely certain — caught my attention several days ago, so I started making a list. This is as far as I got:

1.
2.
3.

For a week now, that list has been sitting by the side of my computer. I can’t think of a single thing I know for absolutely certain.

I used to be enamored with particle physics and quantum physics. I loved that everything could be broken down into smaller and smaller particles, until you ended up with a particle that acted like a wave or a wave that acted like a particle or some such, and then if you broke that wave/particle down into further components, you ended up with . . . nothing. Which to me means that the universe was created out of nothing, not just way at the beginning with what some people call the big bang, but that every single day the universe creates itself out of nothing. So how can one be certain of anything when nothing exists? Whether any of this is true or simply my own bizarre extension of an already bizarre idea, I have no way of knowing, let alone knowing to an absolute certainty.

I’m sitting here at my computer, with my elbows on the table, wondering if there is a certainty about that, but since all solid matter is mostly air — the particles that create the atoms that create the molecules that create the table are so far apart as to be bits of dust floating in empty space. Yet somehow my brain translates those particles into the table and my computer. At least I think it’s my brain that does it; I don’t know. I can only assume I have a brain. I have never seen it. I think and feel, but perhaps those thoughts and feelings don’t exist either — they could be brain blips, things my brain tells me are real for its own nefarious reasons.

And what about me? Do I exist? I listened to a pod cast the other night where a biologist explained his theory that what differentiates us one from the other is not our brain or a soul somewhere deep inside, but something from without. Eternal energy, perhaps. Specific rays of energy that are beamed into our body/minds like television signals into a television channel. A fascinating idea, but it’s only that — an idea. Not something anyone knows for certain.

I took a walk in the desert today. I could feel the warm air, smell the drying cresote bushes, hear the ravens overhead, feel the ground beneath my feet. For a moment or two I was not a separate being walking in the desert — I was connected to it in so many ways that it seemed we were a single entity: desert/woman. And that could be the truth — our bodies do not end in a hard barrier but extend beyond our cells to where there is an overlap with our environment — with something that is not us. Or maybe it is us. Maybe we are everything and everything is us.

Okay — now I know one thing for absolutely certain. I spend too much time alone walking in the desert. Where else would such mystic ideas come from?

Grief: Blindsided by Lilacs

Who knew I would find lilacs in this desert community?

My life mate — my soul mate — loved lilacs. We once saw a house with lilacs lining the long driveway, and he wanted to live there, but we couldn’t afford such luxury. Shortly after we moved to the house where we were to spend the rest of his life, we dug up the lilacs that blocked a gate and replanted them around the perimeter of the yard. When we moved to that house, it was like living in an aquarium — there was absolutely no privacy. By the time he died, it was such a lush environment, it was like living in a terrarium — and there was total privacy. And the gate was once again blocked with lilacs. Apparently, we’d left just enough rootstock that the bushes grew back.

We planted all sorts of bushes and trees in addition to those lilacs, and the thrill of watching our seedlings grow to adulthood was another thing we shared in a twinned life that was all about sharing. It should have been hard leaving the place, but I was in such grief over his death that one more loss didn’t really make much difference to my sorrow.

I still don’t miss the place, or not that much. A place is just a place. I am homesick, but homesick for him. He was home. I miss him. I miss our life together. If he were to call and tell me he was waiting for me, I’d go to him wherever he was — mountains or desert, city or country, there I would be. But he’s never going to call. For months after I came here to the desert to try to figure out what comes next, I’d listen for the phone, hoping he would call and tell me that he was well and I could come home. That feeling is finally fading, but the loss of that feeling just makes me sadder — he is gone and I have to deal with the vicissitudes of life by myself.

I have minor upsurges of grief a couple of times a day, but I try to be upbeat. I have a new book published. I am getting new clothes, trying to reinvent myself from the outside in. I have made new friends (mostly people who have lost their mates. It’s amazing how quickly you can get to know someone when you cry together). I’ve been handling myself well.

And then . . .

Today, strolling around the neighborhood (it was too windy to walk in the desert), I happened to smell lilacs, and instantly, I was back in full-fledged grief mode. People keep telling me one never gets over grief, you just learn to live with it, and that appears to be true. Grief seems to lurk in dark places, ready to gush forth when one is least expecting it. And I was not expecting it today. How could I have known I would encounter lilacs growing in this desert community?