Sunday, November 12, 2017

Her Last Words


Lou died two days ago—Lou, the character in one of my first novels based on good friends of mine, a funny friend, a quiet person who attracted us to her because of her lack of pretension, her open heart, and her sense of humor which at one time had us sorority sisters rolling across the sorority living room she played EbbTide on the piano. We danced vertically until we had to lay back breathless with laughter. 

Her real life name was Pat.  The other three friends in a novel that had several titles and ended up published as Her Last Words are also eighty-two.  We are saddened and yet realizing that we are walking, or shuffling, me with my three canes and bum knee, the same path that Pat has meandered..

The end of a long-term friendship like mine with Pat has forced me to again to accept that I too will come to the end of the trail I’ve been following since college, a trail with gorgeous views, difficult ascents, quiet shadows, and surprises, like the trilliums Pat introduced me to fifty years ago and the sweet salmon berries my sons handed to me along the way.  I’m hoping that there will be a few trilliums and salmon berries left as I poke forward, my cane leading the way.  But I also know  that I’ll be leaving a few items along the trail, like the pioneers lightening their loads on their ways to Oregon

The most painful items are friends like Pat.  Not really left behind, just tucked into memories that arise at quiet moments at night like the yellow evening primroses that have delighted me on this journey. As I try to find sleep, I can still see her cross and re-cross her skinny legs as she drags on a cigarette, her elbow on a knee, in the Solarium, making us laugh. “You were saying,” she whispers through a cloud of smoke.

Also painful to drop along this trail, but inevitable, is my dream of writing a break-out novel, of scratching some sort of meaningful mark on the literary world, one that would make the days crouched here in front of my computer, the hopeless investment of  my retirement funds on advice and editing, the dismal dreams of a sale at book sign-ins and readings, worth the effort.  For a while it was.  No longer.

So, I join a small group of writers I admire, in saying, I’m done.  It all was worth it, the dreams, the disappointments, the email tension, but it isn’t any more.  Alice Munro and Philip Roth announced their retirements recently. Others have just gone silent.  I knew it was my time to move along with a lightened load when I realized that I can no longer type one line of words without three or more typos.  The two books I have written in the past two years have been clear examples of how slow that makes writing a couple hundred pages and are evidence of the wisdom of knowing when to quit.  I’ve decided to  pause  and enjoy the scenery along this part of the trail.

Thanks for reading these thoughts for the past years.  I’ve enjoyed writing them.  I'll think of you
 always as friends.   JO

Jo Barney Writes

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

What A Difference a Word Makes

Well, I’ve just frozen my credit accounts, directed a check to the Red Cross, called a person whom I don’t know to ask why she sent a letter that indicated my mother, age 102, has an insurance policy. (Turns out she does, protecting her cremation plan from Medicaid) and then I delivered to a bank the monthly Mom/Nana checks from her children and grandchildren to cover the fees in her adult foster home. After that I sat for an hour waiting for Medicare or Medicaid or anyone to answer the phone and tell me if she is eligible for funds to help her family pay her bills. I finally gave up. I electronically deposited a small check from my publisher before I was tempted to say What the hell and get a pedicure with it.  All that this morning.  Business.  No writing, only a little reading during the long phone wait. No walk around the park to get my legs moving in a normal, not alarming, way.

 At noon I called a friend, a very good friend who is not feeling good these days, and wished her well. Talking to her was the best part of my To Do list. The second-best part, an hour later, was a self-reward glass of wine on the terrace and the realization that this was the first time I’ve seen blue sky in two weeks. The wind has sifted; the smoke from Eagle Creek is headed in another direction.

The business part of this day had accumulated during the previous week as I plowed through the hundreds of red lines on the manuscript to my editor sent back, not with accolades but with notes: “This character’s name was different on page 30;” “Did you really mean to skip what happened after he hit her?” “The little I know about gonorhea doesn’t include bed care, and it’s spelled differently,” and so on. I finished, depressed and exhausted by the eradication of red lines, and spent this morning trying to distract my depression by frantic busy-ness.

 After giving silent thanks for the return of the blue sky and my glass of wine, I went to my computer. My publisher had emailed: “Jo, we love your writing; send the next one and we’ll be glad to look at it.”

No promises, of course, but the words, We love your writing, wiped out of any remnants of my despair. I celebrated with another glass of wine and understood how words can change a day if not a life. I hope I am able say something that powerful to someone else tomorrow. I’ll start with, I love how you. . .”

Jo Barney Writes

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


It’s a small city park, built to meet the requirement of the city’s quota of greenspace in an area that used to be filled with warehouses and train tracks. I look down on the scene from my condo terrace four floors above it, not from the fourteen floors I couldn’t afford, but okay, especially on this day, where blue skies, white clouds, fill the air above the surrounding hills instead of the smoke-gray fog we have dealt with for two weeks.  It’s safe to breathe, these clouds signal.
So, I do, over a glass of dry Riesling celebrating an avoidance of a $200 charge to replace the toilet paper holder in my bathroom. My back aches, my mind frizzled by the conquering of an Allen wrench one more time. At eighty- two, that’s about all I can conquer these days.
Below me is the three-acre park; a green oval snuggles in its middle, a playground blooms with racing children at one edge.  At the other end of the oval, an empty dog park waits for customers. I’ve looked down on many community festivals rollicking for a few days on that green grass--lively colored tents drawing people in to taste homemade cider, local barbecue, yoga moves, a smiling summer parade of pleasure seekers.
            This afternoon, sipping my award-wine, the scene below me is quiet. Fifteen or so small active bodies, a cluster of parents and au pairs, one grandparent, keep watch as their thrill-seeking children ascend and descend the play structure’s chains and slides or spill shovels of sand on each other. The kids laugh, chase. The adults talk or look down at their phones.
            An oval path wraps the park, a running-walking kind of concrete trail, 1/8th of a mile-- just the right length for older folks to use in exercise routines. Dog owners walk it, too, their four-legged friends enjoying and using the grass at its edge. The empty dog park is enclosed by a fence that separates the big dogs from the little ones, for some reason.
I lean over my terrace’s railing and watch an electric wheel chair roll up to the gated entry to the children’s playground. A German Shepherd leashed to the chair barks twice. A child, a girl by the colors of her blouse, jumps off the back of the chair and runs to the locked gate and turns the lever. The gate opens, and she moves through it, pushing aside a two-year-old hoping to break out.
She closes the gate behind her. The dog, rigid, alert, barks.  Once. Loud. A warning. The girl heads toward the chains. Another bark, this time high-pitched, almost frantic. She pauses, looks at the play structure. The dog brushes against the gate, watching.
 The girl turns, goes back through the gate and climbs onto the blanketed mound in the chair.  She wraps her arms around it, whispers something. She returns to the playground.  The dog, motionless, stands guard.
I am distracted by the non-moving chair-person, the anxious dog, and when I look back toward the play structure, I have lost the girl in the colored blouse. I cannot locate her on the chains, the slide, the sand or the benches. I sip my wine, wait. Five minutes. I still cannot find her. The dog and the chair remain at the gate. I remain at my railing.  Are we all searching?
 The sun is obscured by a cloud. In a gray shadow, I wonder has the girl escaped from a bad situation? Has someone captured her and taken her away? Why is her dog worried? Has the person in the chair fallen asleep and does not know she is missing? Dead?  Should I do something, hovering four stories above them?
The person in the chair does not move. The dog ignores those going through the gate, his tail still.
Then a ray of sunlight cuts through a meandering cloud and the park lightens and becomes the harmless place it is supposed to be. A girl in a flowered blouse emerges laughing from a bush tunnel. She runs through the gate, hugs the hump in the chair, and climbs onto the passenger step  behind the hump. The dog rises, stretches the leather leash as he leads the two of them onto the oval path. They disappear into the dog park.
I almost had a book in this scene. I think it’s still churning.

Jo Barney Writes

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Letter to My Best Friend in the Eighth Grade

July 12, 2017

Hello, Mary! 

Your letter arrived a day ago and I have read it with both a sad kind of recognition of old age we each are living in, and a firm sense of the joy of friendship, which we still enjoy. 

I’m reading about Karl and the cords of his oxygen machine winding through the rooms and feeling sympathy for what you both are experiencing. And a new kind of sisterhood with you, Mary.  Don and I don’t have tubes stretching through the house, but we do have a device that Don hates, which apparently, if he decides to use it, will allow him to sleep soundly (even though it rattles all night. ) Ear plugs for me. 

Unlike you two, we haven’t lost weight, but we do not travel well anymore. Don still drives, but unhappily, and we both inch our ways out of car doors and wonder why we decided to go to where ever we are.  I have been in a very bad-walking period in the past few months, lower back pain, dragging heels, and one day I looked at myself as I shuffled my way past a reflecting window and thought, “My god, that’s an old lady.”  Don gets dizzy and needs to lean against passing buildings. Sometimes my back hurts so much I want to sit down on the next curb. We hold hands to support each other, not to indicate our close relationship, and we meander along the sidewalk in such a way that people approaching us step aside to get out of our way. 

We just had a small argument over whether I should defrost the pork chops in the freezer or whether he should walk down to Safeway and buy new ones since he’s discovered we still have fuel in the barbecue and he’d like to cook at least once this summer.  “They’ll defrost fine,” I reassure him.
“You always move in on what I’m doing,” he answered.
I acknowledged a need to control our meals, remembering on past experience. "And besides, it’s a beautiful day.”  We could sit on the terrace, relax while the meat softened.
 “No." He will walk to Safeway.
 “You always buy five times what we need, and impulse-buy in every aisle,“ I answered, remembering a recent blackening container of  hummus.  “You always…”
“You always say that,“ he murmured, going back to his New York Times

At 82, I’m too old to keep the you always argument going.  I remember Mom and Dad using that phrase. I recall the chapter on family counseling in my professional life that warned against it.  I wonder if our grave stone will read, “You Always.” I need to do something.

I just did it.  “Do whatever, honey.  I’ll be happy to eat whatever you bring home.” I smiled.  He smiled. We’re at peace, sort of. The sun’s still glowing on the terrace.

I’ll work on the phrasing of my next accusation about the socks left like mating varmints under the bed, discovered this morning by the rug-cleaner who almost sucked them up into his machine.  
Living this long with another person is difficult, especially when you have forgotten who, if anyone, is in charge. Tonight, he’s cooking.  Tonight, I’m having a glass of white wine. In the end, it all works out, they say.

Mary, call me.  Even though we haven’t seen each other in years, we’ve gotten to this place together.  We need to talk, like we did when we were thirteen. Jo

Jo Barney Writes

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Not Out of the Woods Yet

I’ve not contacted the dating sites for old people that I thought might be the basis for my next novel, as I may have promised in the last blog. Last week I was hacked, that is, my computer was hacked, and I decided I didn’t care to share my interest in a new man with the Russians. The old one I have is adequate enough although not grist lately for my writing mill. Since I’ve heard no new stories of aging hands across the internet, my next inspiration came when I noticed that when one is driving along a road lined with second and third growth evergreen trees, all the same height like a field of corn because they were planted all in the same month, except that sometimes one tree many feet taller sticks up above  the rest.  My son, the woodsy guy, explained that when the first-growth trees were cut years ago, often one tree was left behind to mark the boundary of the plot. This tree is called a Witness Tree. It is probably over one hundred years old, still witnessing the world of second and third growths below it.

Think about this in terms of a novel:  a long-lived, tall old woman witnesses of the activity of younger ones living around her, their desires to grow, the havoc of natural disorders they endure, the destruction and scars left by mistakes and fate, and finally, the thinning out and weakening of that generation. When a new crop of seedlings is planted at her feet, our old woman settles back in her comfortable rocker and watches the third growth take over. 

I thought I had my next old lady novel. I could imagine my straight, tall Grandmother Gage, whom I knew only from a l930 photo, her gardening tools at her side, as my protagonist. She watches a second growth in her family, and I’m part of the third growth, my sons, already tall, are the fourth growth in this metaphor. I’d call the book Witness Tree, of course.

So, I Googled “witness tree” to get to make sure the facts in this nature-inspired story were mostly correct.  Lucky I did. I discovered that a book with my title, based on a woman’s fascination with a very old tree in New England, was published last year. That particular tree witnessed the Civil War and later historical events.  On the cover, the author sits at the base of the tree, patting its old bark. The book has very good reviews. Not only that, but other east coast Witness Trees were mentioned, mostly deciduous, none of them  a tall Doug fir.

When I told my son this disappointing news, he said I should consider other trees.  Had I ever heard of Nurse Trees, fallen old, old logs on top of which new, huge trees grow from the tiny seeds that have dropped on them? I Googled “Nurse tree,” saw photos. I remembered, then, I had seen them in the Hoh Valley of the Olympic National Park, roots tangling around the rotting trees that gave the new ones their start. They are intriguing, beautiful. I got excited for a minute or two. Maybe? But then I had trouble coming up with a plot involving a dead old woman with babies growing out of her body. I don’t write paranormal.  It scares me. Perhaps I’ll go back to old ladies placing ads on the Internet. 

Jo Barney Writes

Wednesday, April 26, 2017


I spent a sleepless night.  My midnight questions had to do with this blog. I’m already over two weeks overdue getting my monthly ponderings out.  So, what’s happening? Have I run out of blog gas? 

Probably.  I’ve written about my own misgivings about writing, my despair with being published, my dreams of a couple of new books which just won’t get written. Why no ideas now?

 I have looked at other writer’s blogs.  They describe the use of apostrophes, about the importance of the first sentence of a story, about building a platform, about buying their new books of advice.  I, for the past five years, have offered nothing of value to my readers ––o­­nly cries of frustration, anguish, a few visions of the tulips on my terrace, and maybe one or two dismal observations on being an old woman.  Advice, wisdom, words of value? NO.

It may be time to say goodbye to my readers, whoever they are, except for Steve, who always comments on my attempts to connect, and I am so glad for him, but how long can he keep jacking me up, making feel as if I’m connecting with someone?

I just read a free, unasked-for piece of advice about blogs that informed me that I should be having a conversation with my readers, asking them for help, for yesses and noes, for ideas, even.

I haven’t done any of that.  Only a few of my readers have felt it necessary to respond to my musings or my questions, or my deep thoughtliness. Last night I decided to try one more time to touch hands and minds with my readers.  I have had my evening white wine and I’m ready.

I write for older women, like myself.  My three books have done as well as can be expected, kind of like in a hospital for books. I have two more, also centering on older women and the new paths on which they hesitantly step. I haven’t found a publisher who wants to risk accepting them. I haven’t the energy to self-publish them. (I’m 82, now, as you know, if you have been following for a while.) For my sense of well-being, I need to get writing again and I need some advice—or inspiration—or a few new characters to inspire me–– from you, so here goes:

A friend calls, also “elderly” although the adjective makes us both sick to our stomachs. We start laughing as she tells about another friend, Mabel, who decided to find love somewhere, even in the over-fifty dating sites on the internet.  She has had several responses. Each leads her to believe that she may have to do this on her own: church choir, mah jon table, or a world-wide trip on a ship with lots of sea time and a few lonesome sailors. Or maybe, never, a loverless maybe where she and a few friends will drink white wine and stream TV shows.

 Mabel’s stories of searching for a man made us snort out loud. She turned down the thoughtful fellow who asked her if she minded if his erection lasted three hours.  “V, you know.”   And the one with the greasy forehead and nose hair who stiffed her for their wine and small plates, leaving her for the “boys” room, never to return.  And the shaky fellow who worried that if her children lived in her house, would there be any privacy?  “I live in a group home,” he added, not revealing what kind of group.  One nice, seventy-year-old, younger by a few years than Mabel, made it to her front hall, where he apologized for not heading directly to her bedroom because he’d masturbated an hour before and probably couldn’t function for a day or so. She hadn’t been thinking about bed at that point, only whether he drank decaf.

Okay, if you have read this far, I need your help.  Without names, tell me about other older folks who have tried to find love on the internet, because your stories will be in my next novel.  My 102-year-old mother unwittingly created the title when I asked how she was doing.  “Just plugging along,” she answered.

I will continue this blog, and I’ll try to make it a two-way conversation. I’ll ask for inspiration and you, if you want to, can answer in the comment column—or call me. 

Jo Barney Writes

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Turning to Dust? Or Is It Just a Too Long Winter?

I just finished a wonderful, sad book called The Door, by Magda Szabo.  In the end, an old woman’s long-cached hoard of furniture disintegrates at a touch--worms had been eating at the wood for years.

So, when a week of negative events rolled out for me, all I could think was “Everything I touch is turning to dust.” I love the book. I do not feel the same way about this week. It began when I couldn’t make Word come up on my computer.  This was after I had tried to install an app and got the message that my computer was too old for what I was trying to do. I know about being too old, but I didn’t realize it also  happened to electronic devices like my Mac.

I called for help, and an accented, but understandable, young man listened and advised me to change to the most recent Mac version. “Free, Ma’am,” he said. I punched a few keys, and sat for many minutes while the new thing, Sierra Whatever, was being installed. The next day I sat for three hours while another young man in the Philippines wandered around with his cursor in my computer. Word came back but my desktop was a foreign territory. My folders looked as if I had thrown them across the computer, willy-nilly.  A list of “Help” items appeared for a short while, and somehow I erased it. I okayed a bill for $69.00 for something I cannot remember. I did not touch my Mac for a day, afraid what would crumble next.

In past weeks, in a spurt of creative energy, I had ordered four new pillows for our gray sofa, all patterned but all gray. I was going modern, mono-color, which was cheaper than buying a new sofa. They arrived separately, and I tore open the Fed Ex bags one at a time. Yes, they were all gray, but four different kinds of gray, none the right gray. “I guess maybe buyjng from catalogues is not the thing to do for pillows,” Don commented.  “T-shirts, maybe, but not gray pillows.” He said this as he walked out the door with the last bundle to be returned to the Fed Ex store down the street. He was trying to be kind. I was tearing up with frustration and he was close to laughing.

But he brought home a pizza, half-baked, and said he’d heat it up. When the ten minutes were up, he opened the oven door, tried to slip something under the pie, and swore.  The pizza had crumbled, like Szabos’ furniture, and was stuck onto three different very hot surfaces. This morning I tried using the cleaning button on the cheezy lumps in the oven, and fifteen minutes later the fire alarm beeped loudly and continuously until we opened windows and doors, which is not a good thing since we live in a condo with many neighbors within earshot and smellshot.

The smoke cleared. I went my revived computer, and two rejections for a novel I had hopes for waited for me. I don’t cry about rejections.  I swear, a habit I blame on the pizza destroyer.

The doors to the terrace were still open and I went to close them, the furnace going crazy trying to get to 70 degrees in the 40-degree sunless afternoon that had crept in under the smoke. My winter pots with their black, dissolving geraniums cringed at me from their posts along the metal railing. But in each pot, spikes and flops of green peeked out above dirt still wet from the latest rain storm. My bulbs, forgotten for a year, hiding under dead geraniums and the roots of fermenting annuals, greeted me, were telling me that I needed to take courage, stop swearing, smile. And to send out more queries, like hopeful green leaves.  “Spring is coming,” they assured me.

Jo Barney Writes

Monday, January 16, 2017


Well, I’ve done it again.  I believed I had finished the next book, even found a literary-sounding title for it:  The Hedge.  Even had a Manhattan to celebrate last night before my husband and I settled in to try to understand The Young Pope.  But that’s another story.

This morning I decided to look over the short list of words I had jotted down as I wrote.  I’m inclined to use the same word over and over again,. (It feels so right in the first draft) and I think this time the word will be “pull” as in “pull up a chair, pull out a hanky, pull up into a driveway.” Not “Pull out a gun,” like my last book.

I bring the 220 perfect pages (I have been revising for a week) to the screen and type  “pull” on the Search in Document function. The list that comes forward looks as if it is suffering from a plague, orange spots, fifty or more scattered on, seems like, every page. How many synonyms does “pull” have?  I try a few.  I can do this.  At about the tenth change, I realize I cannot just change all the “pulls” to another word.  Each has to be looked at in its verbal environment, individually assessed.  Okay.  I have time.  It’s snowing and icy outside.  I have two frozen meals in the fridge. 

About, maybe at “pull” # 40, I hit a wrong button or fill in the wrong space or something.  All of my “pulls” and any others that still linger in the next hundred pages have been transformed to “takes.” This change might make sense in some instances, does not in most others, and the result is definitely as bad too many “pulls.”

The plague has spread.

Now, four hours later, and not yet finished, I have gotten rid of sixty out of sixrt-five “takes.” (It seems that in the original draft, I had overused “take” as well as “pull”.)

The only thing, beside the glass of white wine I’ve finally poured, that makes me feel better about spending an entire day searching for two words is a memory I have of my first novel, Wednesday Club, a story of a counselor and her five counselees, as they all struggle through divorce, abuse, bullying, and really bad Teachers (and that’s only the counselor’s side of the story).  For some reason, I did the same search then as I did today, when one word that kept cropping up no matter what was happening on the page.  “Smile.”

One hundred and ten times in three hundred pages.  Little kids and their counselors smile a lot, if given the chance.  I left a lot of “smiles” in the manuscript (what other word fits?), and the book never got published, even by me. But it’s my favorite story.  Maybe when the ice and snow melts and I recover from today’s session, I can go out, get a little exercise, get the blood flowing once more, and I’ll look at and love Wednesday Club one more time.

Jo Barney Writes