Monthly Archives: May 2012

Blank Book: Mother’s Day

My mother gave me my first journal, a 6 by 8 inch hardbound, unlined volume called The Blank Book.  I hadn’t yet become enamored of working with words–although I’d already discovered the magnificent obsession of craft.  I was a serious French horn player, completely taken by music.  All my friends in high school, when my mother gave me the book, played instruments in Jazz Band, Orchestra, Ensemble, Marching Band, or Youth Orchestra.  I didn’t yet know the portability of writing, the ability to walk anywhere with pen and journal rather than bulky brass instrument and hard case that weighed a third as much as I did.

Never meaning to turn from music, I began to fill the book.  I gathered quotes, clippings, accounts of dreams, observations of birds and animals, pen-and-ink drawings, song lyrics, names, dates, letters.  I recorded my junior and senior years inside that book.  On its pages are a pretty good sense of who I was before college.

I still own The Blank Book among the ninety-some journals I’ve written since.

My mother gave me a journal for a reason.  I didn’t know at the time–and she might not have either–that I’d keep the writing habit.  Her gift was long lasting, multifaceted, open ended.  My mother gave me many other great gifts: my life, my start on the river, our family, my love of nature.  My brown eyes, my odd nose.  When she died I inherited turquoise rings, silver pins, scarves, dresses, coats, her color chart, a watercolor she painted of the desert, a hair brush with her hair still in it.  Her lovely hair was far less gray than mine is today, although she never colored it and I’m younger by five years than she was at her oldest.  She also gave me a creative bent, a temper, and all the Peterson Field Guides.

Terry Tempest Williams tells the story of meeting her future husband Brooke in a bookstore in Salt Lake City, where they bonded immediately over books.  He said he’d like to own all the Peterson Field Guides some day.  A young woman who might have been a rival said, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”  Terry said, “I already own them.”

When I hear this account, I think of the field guides I inherited from my mother, and I wish I’d kept them all.  I didn’t.  I’d recently learned from feng shui teachings that we help lighten the souls of those gone before if we don’t feel obligated to keep the material objects they’ve given us.  We help release their ties to earth.  Full of grief, agonizing over seeing her handwritten name on the frontispieces, I decided to pass them on.  I kept only those I knew I’d use: birds, trees, wildflowers, tracks.  The others I let go, hoping it would ease her journey to heaven.

I still consult my mother’s guides when I need to settle a burning curiosity about what I see when I look outside, as she taught me to do.

Other times I open the guides simply to remember her–to feel the leaves she pressed between the pages, to read the 3×5 note cards with inquiries and key words.  Why do oaks deliquesce?  Where can red-winged blackbirds live?  Ecotone.  Watershed.  Ammonite.

I have a friend whose late mother’s old guitar sends him into a mood: nostalgia, longing, fierce reminiscence.  The scent and feel of the guitar call up songs sung years before, memories he might not recall otherwise.  It’s a mixed blessing, keeping artifacts of the dead.  You remember things you want to.  You remember things you don’t.

For me, I feel my mother in the field guides, the blank book, the memories of a happy childhood spent as much as possible outdoors.  I feel her in my innate drive to create, to keep setting new words on paper.  She set me on my path with a modest gift–not, by far, the most costly or elaborate treasure or teaching she gave me.  She started me looking and writing and discovering the world, and I’ve never stopped.


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Questions and Answers

Susan Bono’s Tiny Lights website is  a good place to go any time of day or night.  Visit the site for writing prompts and creative companionship.  We are not alone.

The prompt on 11/15/2011 was, “What does it mean to have a voice?”

Gathering in Coloma for 2012 Seder

Gathering in Coloma for 2012 Seder

“Questions and Answers” by Rebecca Lawton

What does it mean to have a voice? I asked the night. It returned the screech of a passing owl. What does it mean to have a voice? The firs whispered wordlessly in windy chorus. What does it mean to have a voice? I asked the flames in my outdoor fireplace—they crackled and snapped as wood became ember. I asked the stars, too, which responded with cold and far-away silence.

I asked my sleeping husband, what does it mean to have a voice? His measured breath urged me to slumber and dream. I asked our cat, who yawned and watched me with night-vision eyes. I consulted my Merriam-Webster’s, which noted with authority, vox, sound, power.

I asked the characters in my short story in progress, what does it mean to have a voice? The protagonist, an author, replied, It means to write in your own words, from your singular perspective. Her husband, an outdoorsman, said, It means speak in your own words. Be yourself. Her son, an eight-year-old, said, it means you can talk. Her grandfather, an octogenarian, added, And that you are heard.

I asked the spirits, who I know are overhead, what do you think it means to have a voice? They replied with one word: sing.

Sing the tune you know, the words you are given. Sing in the key that suits your range. Sing with passion, with heart, with soul. Sing what you care about — sing what matters enough to get you out of bed in the morning, or in the middle of the night.

Sing about your losses. Sing your wins. Sing your love, your fear, your joy. Sing as if you could lose your voice tomorrow. Sing high, sing low, sing short, sing long. Sing daily. Sing weekly. Sing by yourself; sing with others. Sing with a harp; sing a capella. Sing out of tune; sing in perfect pitch. Sing about what you really, really care about, and you will bring something uniquely yours to the world.

That’s what it means to have a voice. So says my heart. It means to be as true to yourself as you can in your writing, your speech, your song. What emerges will be wholly original, without your even trying to be wholly original. What emerges will be your own special gift to literature, to music, to life.

And you will be heard—by yourself, by others. By the gods.

Rebecca Lawton is an author and natural scientist whose memoir, Reading Water: Lessons from the River, was a San Francisco Chronicle Bay Area Bestseller and ForeWord Nature Book of the Year finalist. Recently she received her third nomination for a Pushcart Prize, for her short story “The Road to Bonanza” (read it at

For many years she was a whitewater guide in the West, guiding ten of her fourteen seasons on the Colorado in Grand Canyon. As a scientist she studies the transport of sediment in water, especially during wet storms.

She is working on a book about the Sacramento River for Heyday Press, and she is often up with the night. Visit her at

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