Come Along With Me

The clock is ticking on my Four Leaves and Tales Blog, but you’re invited to come with me on the next part of my journey.

At the end of October my Four Leaves and Tales blog will fold into my new website. I’d love to take you along with me. Rather than automatically migrate you along with the blog, I figure you’d like a choice in the matter. I’ll still be an occasional blogger, but I am also committed to producing a newsletter with information about the goings on in my world as mother, grandmother, teacher, and writer. If you would like to come along, follow the link. Why not sign up for my newsletter while you’re there? As a thank – you, download a printable set of postcards made from original illustrations of The Last Crystal Trilogy. The newsletter will give you access to advance information about what I’m working on, and other bonus offers. You can unsubscribe any time. You’ll also see my new email address. I’d love to hear from you.

Too much in your in box?  Sign up for my mailing list. I’ll notify you when there are special events or news items you won’t want to miss. 

A wonderful New Yorker cartoon has a man looking at his cat and saying, “Don’t even think outside the box!” In my last posts I was figuring out how to get one of my cats to quit peeing outside the box. In researching this issue, I discovered that it is a huge problem for many cat owners. Gosh. I thought it was just me. I am happy to report that with a lot of hard work and patience, I managed to get Butterfly back in the box in time to settle in before I left for five months away from Baltimore.  

The cats are in capable hands of a wonderful family who are living in our Baltimore home while we’re away. I’m happy to be back with family – my daughter and granddaughter in beautiful Stratford-upon-Avon where my daughter is doing graduate work at The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. I hope you’ll come along for this next phase of my journey. If not, in the words of the Bard in Romeo and Juliet, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

Retreat, Regroup, and Go On: My Ongoing Battle to Eliminate Feline Inappropriate Elimination

What happens when there are setbacks as you try to deal with feline inappropriate elimination? How long will it take to get my cat to quit peeing out of the box? In this blog I talk about my ongoing war to deal with the issue and dealing with my first setback.

If we were in family therapy, Butterfly would be our identified patient who is exhibiting the symptoms of dysfunctional relationships through feline inappropriate elimination. I’ve had my first major retreat in the Me vs Cat Pee battle. And yes, it was me retreating. Last time I reported from the battle front, I was able to note steady, if modest success. The area most vulnerable near the shoe cubby had been scrubbed and treated, test boxes of litter set out for kitty choices, initial information about preferences noted, and a gradual movement of the boxes toward a destination out of traffic.  

My research has told me that cat boxes need to be located so there are at least two, preferably three escape routes. That way, if Butterfly is ambushed during an awkward moment by a non-identified family member (translation: Alistair or Luna), she has more than one way to run. Unfortunately, she is sometimes ambushed during an awkward moment.  

From Butterfly’s point of view this has to be not only grossly unfair–after all, we should all have our privacy respected–but she was here first. Here she is as the adorable little bit of gray fluff all huddled up next to a toy in her own warm bed. She was right at the center of attention where every cat belongs, right?

Now to the first retreat. I have just settled myself in my wingback chair for a quiet moment and cup of tea when I notice a spill on the edge of the carpet. Have I spilled my tea? Dang! It isn’t tea. I get the corner of the carpet blotted and sprayed with a deodorizing enzyme spray (the one that says “money back if”), reminding myself that most wars have some unsuccessful skirmishes. I’ve been lucky so far. Can’t expect luck to hold forever.

 In thinking back thorough where I’ve been, I realize that I have moved the litter boxes too quickly in hopes of having a new location established before leaving for a few days away. The goal is to have one box with preferred litter on each floor.  At the moment I have five boxes with that many combinations of litter. Lots of choice. My house isn’t that big. It feels like I’m stepping over a litter box at every turn. But it’s going to be worth it, it’s going to be worth it.  I tell myself, remembering that if you hear something often enough, you’re likely to think it’s true.

SO, retreat and regroup. One box goes back in traffic where it was. The other stays in the new location. I have to keep the cats calm (yeah, right, I’m telling myself, keep me calm, more like it). In three days, I’m going away for a long weekend, my first post-Covid vaccination visit with family. I don’t want to come back to wet carpets and a yellow swimming pool near the shoe cubby. 

Once the carpet spot is dry, I place a nice little lavender bouquet over the target spot. I figure it can sit there while I am away. But I want to introduce it before I leave so my three mischiefs are used to it. I also spray the floor by the shoe cubby with a mixture of rosemary and lavender and refresh the rosemary bouquets that were sitting there.  Now I’m stepping around cat boxes and rosemary and lavender bouquets.  But it’s going to be worth it. It’s going to be worth it.

All is quiet in the days leading up to my departure—a euphemism, of course, with three cats who don’t really like each other.  I step around the cat box in my path from the front door to the kitchen and the bouquets consoling myself with the thought that there is one good thing to being unable to have people over due to Covid restrictions.  

Meanwhile, I added a couple of new toys to keep everybody entertained while I’m away. One has an arial mouse that whirls around if its batted and holes where one can stick a paw (if one has paws) and bat at plastic balls. It looks like a sure winner.  

Butterfly takes a look and goes to her tissue box with the puff ball, plastic ball, yarn, sock, and ball with a bell inside, happily fishing them out. Kind of like kids choosing a wastebasket and hanger after you’ve just bought them a climbing toy.  Alistair gives the flying mouse a whack when he goes past.

Do I make the visit to family? You bet. It is wonderful to be able to hug my niece and nephew-in-law. I spend five days and return to discover there are no new targets. YAY! Maybe that enzyme “money back if it doesn’t work” spray really works.

But that hasn’t ended the war. More about that in another blog.

Is your cat in the top 4%?

Why do people abandon their cat? If your cat, like mine, has problems with Feline Inappropriate Elimination, your cat is part of the 4% with this problem. It’s the number one reason people abandon their cat. In this third in a series of blogs where I declare war on my cat’s FIE, I talk about cat litter boxes and litter. It’s tongue in cheek, but I’m serious about solving this problem.

This is Butterfly. We share a problem. My cat pees outside the box. I have to deal with it. Feline Inappropriate Elimination (FIE) is the number one reason cat owners abandon, relinquish, or euthanize their pet. If you share the problem, check with your veterinarian to be sure there isn’t an underlying medical issue. Our first problem with Butterfly was related to a bladder infection. Once treated, she returned to using the litter box. But given the all-clear from the vet last week, we’re pretty sure this round of FIE is a cat with anxiety issues.

One writer’s war on FIE goes on. Who knew this was part of a writer’s life? Concurrently with scrubbing the floor, using an enzyme destroyer, and getting some plants cats don’t like, I do a litter preference test. What kind of litter is best for cats? We’ve been using cat litter made from recycle newspaper since Butterfly was a kitten. I love it because it doesn’t leave a cloud of dust. And yes, there are pellets that sometimes get tracked out of the box, but I prefer sweeping those up to the choking clouds of dust raised by clay litters and those 99% dust free litters. Amazing how much dust 1% turns out to be.

Phase II of My War on FIE: From the Trenches “Are you keeping the litter box clean?” It’s one of the first questions asked when you address the problem of FIE–right after the, “Is there a medical problem.” Seems like one of those, “Well, duh!” questions. Apparently it isn’t. To kitty a box that isn’t routinely scooped is probably akin to a toilet that hasn’t been flushed. Just saying. 

So it’s time to do a cat litter preference test. Most sources I’ve consulted support a sandy material that may appeal to something deep and primal, since cats evolved from the African wild cat. It doesn’t appeal to me because of my deep and primal need to walk on sand at the beach, not in the house. But, given the limited choice between finding pools on the floor and sandy tracks, it’s a no brainer.

Another thing, harsh smells may drive a cat away. (Okay, they drive me away, too, especially the smell of cat urine on my carpets.) So how to clean the box? A weekly hot water and detergent scrub is sufficient for cleaning the litter box. Don’t use bleach. And, even though I think the boxes are clean, over time, plastic collects odors that I can’t smell.

New boxes, new litter trial. I’m on it. At the pet store, I pick up four new litter boxes. I study the litter options, finding a sandy litter that says, “no tracking, no clouding” on the packaging. Looks like it might fill the bill for cats and me. Have I found the best cat litter?

At check out, I wait behind a woman who is whining because there aren’t any birthday cakes left in the pet birthday section and it is her dog’s birthday. She’s going to have to face him with shallow explanations as to why he doesn’t have a cake. She thinks they ought to stock a better supply of party hats and streamers, too.  

Once I’m home, it’s time to set up the test. I figure it is like the old blind test of Pepsi vs Coke, except Butterfly isn’t going to consent to wearing a blindfold. In tray number 1: pee-pee pad, tray number 2:  the familiar recycled newspaper cat litter, and next in line, tray number 3: no tracking, clumping cat litter. The tension mounts. Which litter does my cat prefer?

The moment of truth. Butterfly sniffes all three boxes, climbs in to check the newspaper litter, uses it. Yay! Maybe it does matter that it’s in a new box. One victory doesn’t win the war, though. 

Getting your cat’s litter right is an important part of getting rid of cat pee outside the box–I keep reminding myself.

Butterfly may be the target cat, but the other two figure they are part of the experiment. Luna doesn’t seem to be all that particular and leaves a spot in all three—who knew she was that interested in equity? Alistair thinks anything as important as rating the litter box should belong to the Lion King. He gives five stars to the sand. I don’t actually see him in his personal moment, but I know it’s him because I follow the tracks he left. So much for trackless litter. He returns to the sand litter box both upstairs and downstairs, leaving tracks in both places. 

After a few days of making note, it comes down to keeping the familiar litter and disappointing Alistair, who really does love the sandy clumping litter. I hope he doesn’t express his disappointment by Feline Inappropriate Elimination!  

****** Important disclaimers. I’m muddling through this, hoping to solve the problem of cat pee outside the litter box without having to take Butterfly for cat behavioral therapy. I’ve been gratified to find some very helpful online resources. Check out these if you need more than tongue in cheek musings. 

In a War With Your Cat, Who Will Win?

Love my cat, but I’ve declared war on her frustrating, inappropriate elimination, aka peeing outside the box. In this phase I do the scrub work.

So Monday I declared war on “feline inappropriate elimination,” hoping to bring an end to Butterfly’s peeing outside the box. Okay, I admit it. Thoughts of “appropriate elimination of feline” have passed through my head. Right after I moved Butterfly’s box to in front of the shoe cubby, the spot she persists in using, a workman came to check on something in my house. I was embarrassed and apologetic that he had to step past the cat box. “Well, if it were me, this is when I’d be getting rid of the cat.” 

OKAY. I’d thought of that. It would take care of the problem. On the other hand, when we adopted her from the shelter, we didn’t say, “Until pee do us part.” We promised to take care of our darling kitten and provide a safe environment. I’m not sure what she promised, not being clever enough to speak cat. I think there may have been an escape clause in her contract. Or maybe she had her toes crossed when she signed on. I just remember my granddaughter’s delight, her open arms, and her instant naming of the little gray kitten, “Butterfly! Her name’s Butterfly.” So no, getting rid of the mostly darling adult Butterfly isn’t an option.

But back to the war zone.  After mobilizing for the assault:

Phase I of the Battle: Digging the Trenches

Armed with a whole bunch of recommended products, I scrub an entire section of hardwood floor that seems to be the predominant target zone. First, I use detergent and Borax. I put a bunch of chairs over the spot so it won’t be worth the bother. But then, I’m not a cat. It’s all I can think to do, though. I don’t have any of those mega fans they used in our basement after the water heater broke.

When it’s thoroughly dry, I scrub again with an enzyme product that has an orange smell and comes with a “Guaranteed to Work or Your Money Back” notice across the front.  An asterisk below reads, “For terms of guarantee, see back.” On the back it reads, “If you are not fully satisfied with this product, return it on the third Tuesday after a full moon along with the original receipt. Receipts that have been retrieved from the trash are not accepted.”—No, actually it looks straightforward enough. Besides, the young woman in the pet store who sold it to me looked me straight in the eye without flinching.  She didn’t have her fingers crossed either. I looked. 

Chairs go back over the spot while it dries. I don’t think I really needed that step. The enzyme scrub repells me anyway!  When that is dry, I replace the chairs with a scattering of rosemary and lavender and two small lavender plants. Lavender likes full sun, so after the month of recommended military operations, I’ll move them outside. I need a rosemary plant, too, but there weren’t in at my local nursery. I have to rely on my neighbor’s rosemary for a few sprigs.  

Reconnisance: One of the websites recommended installing surveillance cameras. Seriously? This isn’t a threat to national security. It’s me at war with my cat. You gotta wonder.

The enzyme scrub smells very orangish. Cats don’t like citrus, do they. Do they? Butterfly is observed checking out and reclining on the steps where I have a small bag of oranges stashed. This isn’t going to plan.  
Luna walks through the lavender and rosemary. Instead of skirting it like she’s supposed to, she sniffs both, picks up a branch of lavender and walks away with it in her mouth. WHAT? Next time I see her she’s meditating on the meaning of life. And Alistair in all this? He’s the Lion King. He says, “Let me eat cake.”

I think I’ll just go sit by the Pheromone Diffuser.

Inappropriate feline elimination? Aka: “My house is becoming one giant litter box!”

I love my cat, but not when she pees outside the box. I’m on a challenging journey to change the behavior.

Did you know that “feline inappropriate elimination” is the number one reasons cats get relinquished (i.e. turned in to a shelter)? And you thought it was just you and your beloved Moggy’s unpleasant little secret.

I’ve taken Butterfly to the vet, soaked everything but the ceiling with enzyme spray, threatened to hurl her into the streets to make her own way in the world, had the carpets cleaned and cleaned again, moved one of the litter boxes into her preferred location, almost cleaned up the problem when: enter Luna, the aging British Shorthair with attitude. With the death of her beloved owner, we adopted her. Who else was going to take an old cat of uncertain age? More stress, more fisticuffs, more “feline inappropriate elimination” as Butterfly totters on the edge of a nervous breakdown.—make that as I totter

I have this nightmare of all our furniture sitting in 4 inches of cat litter because we can’t solve the problem. One vet said, “Get rid of the carpets.” Are you kidding? I bought most of them from local artisans in Afghanistan and Pakistan. No. Okay, so we put away the main targeted carpet. Butterfly pees on the floor.

Another vet said, “Just use this enzyme spray and you could try one of those pheromone plug ins.”Right. Butterfly pees on the spot soaked by enzyme spray. And sitting next to the pheromone plug in singing “Kumbaya” hasn’t solved the problem either.”

Then yesterday happened. Another lake on the floor and I’m screaming, “I’VE HAD IT! THIS IS WAR!”* 

Strategizing:  Several hours of online research looking at good, solid advice from vets and cat behavior experts—most of which I’ve tried and lots of stupid stuff and quick cures. And NO, I’m not putting pots of Coleus canina around on places where Butterfly has peed. For one thing, the house would like the forest primeval and the plant that may be an aromatic member of the mint family happens to smell like skunk. I’m not the one peeing on the floor. 

Military Spending: I headed to the local pet store and spend more money than I want to talk about, returning with new litter boxes, two kinds of litter for a trial—I have to find out what Butterfly will use. Right now the only thing I can count on (most of the time) is doggie pee-pee pads. But Luna has decided she likes them better than litter. So I have to put one in the box and out of the box because Butterfly won’t get in the same box. (Alistair uses the downstairs facility–such a guy.) Not to mention the negative ecological impact, about like disposable diapers.

So I’m tracking this war. And no, I’m not selling anything. While the battle rages, my blog is dedicated to moaning. [This is what some writers do while they wait for inspiration for the next big story.] If you are bored out of your mind by working from home and living with your dear ones, or your Moggy has similar problems, you are welcome to follow as I wage the war. If it doesn’t work out? I will turn myself in to the nearest animal shelter.

Black History Month and Trails West

One of the things I found most fun and interesting in my research for The Last Crystal Trilogy is the incredible diversity of US History. I knew that. But I didn’t really know it. 

In Book 1, The Black Alabaster Box, Grace Willis and her family set out for California on the Santa Fe TrailAs I began digging into first-hand accounts and exploring recent scholarship, I discovered that The Great Westward Migration was far more diverse than I’d imagined. The trails west were travelled by people of all colors, races, national origins, religious backgrounds, and sexual identities. In my research, I met a lot of interesting characters.  

James Pearson Beckwourth, 1798-1866

One of the fascinating people I met, who didn’t find a way into the trilogy is James Pierson Beckwourth. If you haven’t met him before, his story was first written in The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians. It was told to Thomas D. Bonner and published in New York and London in 1856 and later in France.

And—why is this not surprising?—Beckwourth’s contract with Bonner gave him half of the proceeds of the book, but he never saw a penny from Bonner. That’s part of the history, too—not a nice history.

At one time, historians considered Beckwourth’s story too embellished to be of much help in understanding history of the period, but it has been rethought in more recent years. He was one of those larger-than-life figures who became a legend in his own time and whose legend has now made its way into a number of books for kids that should make for interesting reading any time of the year, not just during Black History Month. 

Born a slave of mixed race in Virginia, he was eventually freed by his father. His family moved to Missouri where he learned to be a blacksmith. He was apparently fired after a disagreement with his boss. He joined the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and worked for its owner, General William Ashley, when Ashley was exploring the Rockies. He was a trapper and mountain man. He married into the Crow Nation.  (Image scan from The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, edited by Thomas D. Bonner, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, 1856, Wikimedia Commons.)

Beckwourth participated in the Gold Rush, discovered a better route through the Sierra Nevada mountains via Beckwourth’s Pass to California and improved it, and ranched in the Sierra Valley. The settlement of Beckwourth, California grew up around the hotel, ranch, and trading post he established. But Beckwourth wasn’t one to settle down for long. He served in the army, worked as an agent for Indian Affairs, tragically participated in the Sand Creek Massacre, and worked as an army scout when he was in his 60s. Beckwourth died among the Crow people and was buried according to Crow custom in the Crow Indian Settlement Burial Ground in Laramie, Wyoming.

Folk who are fighting to hold on to America as they imagine it used to be have no idea of how America has always been: a country of immigrants, a country rich in diversity.

There is so much more to Beckwourth’s story. Find out more by reading one of the books about his life. History moves forward on the shoulders of ordinary people as well as the larger-than-life folk, though. We’ll never know all the stories of the trails west, but we should know that they are the stories of people like us, all of us. Folk who are fighting to hold on to America as they imagine it used to be have no idea of how America has always been: a country of immigrants, a country rich in diversity. Racism and exclusionary practices have dogged at us all the way. That’s pretty important to know, given that people who have limited understanding of historical racism aren’t so good at identifying it in their everyday lives or even in specific examples.

Some useful links if you’re looking for more:

A good resource on teaching for justice:

Santa Fe Trail Bicentennial Year 2021

2021 marks the 200th Anniversary of the Santa Fe Trail. It was an active road between Kansas City and Santa Fe between 1821 and 1877. While it was also one of the trails to the West Coast, along with the famous Oregon and California Trails, it was first and foremost a trade route. 

View of Santa Fe Plaza in the 1850’s, ca. 1930, Artist Gerald Cassidy (1869-1934) from the collection of The New Mexico Art Museum

It began with a man who was hard pressed for cash, William Becknell. In fact, he’d been put in jail for failure to pay his debts. Fortunately, a friend bailed him out and the judge promised to give him until January 1822 to pay up. Bucknell wasn’t the only one facing hard times. The Panic of 1819 left Missouri economically depressed. There was no banking system. Paper money was worthless. Gold and silver were the only acceptable method of payment for goods, if a market could be found for them. Markets were as non-existent as coin. After his jail experience and looking for opportunity, Bucknell decided to organize a trading party and make his way across the plains.

When Mexico gained independence in 1821, Becknell wasn’t the only one with an eye to establishing trade routes. Like Becknell, some were hard pressed by a slow economic recovery.  Looking west promised a way out.

In June 1821, the Missouri Intelligencer carried an advertisement by Beckknell calling for interested parties to sign on for a trip west “for the purpose of trading for Horses & Mules, and catching Wild Animals of every description, that we may think advantageous.”

Seventeen men, signed on, making the trip with Becknell along what became the Santa Fe Trail. His exact route between the Arkansas River and Las Vegas, New Mexico is open to discussion. In fact, we aren’t sure if he intended to go as far as Santa Fe. To me, the notice that he planned to trade for horses and mules suggests that he was headed to New Mexico. He wasn’t likely to find mules wandering through Kansas and Colorado. Whatever his intent, Becknell got to Santa Fe as the first trading party after trading restrictions were lifted. It was November 13, 1821. He returned with $6,000 in silver coin on an investment of $300. The trip was so profitable that he returned two more times, establishing the trail. After him, merchants took goods by the wagon load—sometimes 100 or more wagons, four abreast, made the trip.

Despite Covid 19, Celebrations of the Bicentennial of the Trail are planned. A 200 Anniversary website has been set up. Meanwhile, learn more about the Trail through The Santa Fe Trail Association and its quarterly publication, Wagon Tracks.  

Photograph of Becknell is from Legends of America where you will find an interesting account of Becknell.

Start a New Tradition

We celebrate Christmas in our family. One of the things we enjoy is decorating the tree together, sometimes it’s team tag, other times we’re around the tree together. Our ornaments are old and every one has special meaning to one of us.

For families who have been locked up together working and going to school at home, the thought of having everybody together during the holidays may not be as inviting as it was this time last year. So how can you make the time special without the opportunity to gather with extended family, visit holiday displays, go shopping, meet friends for fun or travel to new places?

Virtually, sure. But most of us have had our fill of virtual. And parents who are conscientious about screen time for the kids, painfully realise that all cautions about appropriate amounts of screen time are out the window with virtual school.

Maybe it is time to ramp up, return to, or introduce the time-honored tradition of storytelling with the family instead of watching something together in the evening. “Storytelling is universal and is as ancient as humankind. Before there was writing, there was storytelling. It occurs in every culture and from every age. It exists (and existed) to entertain, to inform, and to promulgate cultural traditions and values.”[1]

You may tell a story that the family has read together and loves, retell a movie or television program, or make up a story. You can also tell a family story. If you’re afraid the kids will say, “Oh, not that again,” maybe you’re not telling it as a story. Think of something that happened to you as a child growing up, something won or lost, something important. Or think of a family legend passed along in your family. Think of telling it around a campfire with the drama of dark setting in. Think of spinning a yarn based on fact handed down, adding your own take.  

One of my family legends is how family members fighting for the Union during the Civil War slipped home to check on the women and children. They were reported.  William Clarke Quantrill’s men, including Frank and Jesse James, raided the farm. They routed out the men and killed them. Then, to the horror of the women and children, they even pulled the featherbeds out of the house and dragged them through yard, scattering feathers everywhere. I borrow from the story in writing an episode for Chapter 10, “No Time for Tears,” of The Black Alabaster Box.

The family story is mildly interesting if you stick to the facts. But when told like a story, a real “Once upon a time” story, the tension builds. Neighbours didn’t trust neighbours. The men didn’t tell anyone when they enlisted in the Union Army or when they came home. It was that dangerous. The story starts to build. The storyteller adds details about the wild Missouri border with Kansas, the lawlessness and mistrust. Some details may be true and others are part of the life taken on by a story in the telling. (The James brothers were well known to my ancestors and they rode with Quantrill’s men, but were they there on the scene? I’m not really sure, but it sure makes a good story.) Family stories may or may not have a happy ending. The story of Quantrill’s men doesn’t. But it carries family values and it kept me listening as a kid.

Find it hard to keep people focused while you’re telling a story? Sometimes drawing, coloring, or doing a craft activity like working with playdough helps people to listen. In pioneer days, everybody helped with tasks like knitting stockings or mending while someone told the story. That’s something else we could borrow from time-honoured traditions. Keep the hands busy. Follow the link to download FREE coloring pages based on illustrations from The Last Crystal Trilogy to keep people busy and focused if you don’t have a mending pile. There are several choices from easy to challenging.

Who knows? You may develop an important family tradition.

[1] National Geographic (January 2020). Storytelling and Cultural Traditions.   The article is kid friendly and includes several traditions of storytelling that may be of interest to the whole family.c

BSP: Forgive the Interruption

BSP is an anacronym used by Sisters in Crime  to stand for Blatant Self Promotion. So forgive the interruption. I promised the next post on character development in The Last Crystal Trilogy. But I want to share this review from Kirkus Reviews. Follow the link to read the full review:

A young girl’s pioneering trek to the American West is interrupted by danger, tragedy, and a magical quest in the first book in Schoonmaker’s Last Crystal trilogy for middle schoolers.

The author is a former professor and elementary school teacher, but this is no textbook adventure. Nor is it Little House on the Prairie redux.

A well-crafted mix of fact and fantasy filled with surprises and grounded in history and real-world dilemmas.

Circumstance and Plot

I can’t remember how my fascination with trains began. My brothers and I used to watch for smoke from the steam engine that pulled train cars along tracks that made their way just beyond the hills to the southeast of our farm. On a clear day, you could hear the train chugging its way between Custer City and Clinton, Oklahoma. And, if you climbed to the tallest hill on the farm, there was an outside chance that you might see the train—sometimes we did. 

I was a member of the Speech and Debate Club at Grays Harbor College in Aberdeen, Washington. In the spring, we took the train from Portland, Oregon to Weber College (now Weber State University) in Ogden, Utah for the Phi Rho Pi National Junior College Speech and Debate Tournament. We were routed through Green River, Wyoming and down to Ogden. I found myself staring out the window, awestruck by the stark beauty of the country we passed. I’d traveled it by car, but seeing it from a train window was an altogether different experience.

The picture is of my granddaughter and me at the Railway Museum in Sacramento. As we climbed on board the Santa Fe Chief at the Museum, I couldn’t help thinking about my Uncle Frank and his little brother making the trip from Kansas City to Sacramento every summer. 

I’d traveled the route by car many times over. I invariably wondered what would happen if the car broke down or by some stroke of bad luck we were stranded in a remote area. It was new food for thought: what would happen if a couple of boys got off the train and were stranded in the desert between Kansas City and L.A./Sacramento? Coincidently, about the same time, I read an article about luxury train cars. (You can find out more about private railroad cars at the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners website.) Who knew you could rent or buy your own train car? I clipped the article and put it in the little black marble notebook where I kept ideas. (Yes, for those of you who have read it, it is probably why Robert has a black marble notebook in The Last Crystal.) So what might happen if Uncle Frank and little Clyde stumbled into a private railroad car. Who would they find there?  

Life intervenes. I’d been busy enough as a mother and elementary school teacher. But the idea had to go on hold when I was admitted to a doctoral program at Teachers College, Columbia University (TC) in the late 1980s. After the doctoral program came the Assistant Professorship and the drive for tenure. I was teaching, indulging my bent for historical research, and writing—not about train rides and quests for something for some unknown reason.

Years later, after retiring from TC, I picked up the idea again. The black marble notebook in which I’d kept careful notes and clippings before graduate school days, had disappeared. But the idea hadn’t. My granddaughter was approaching eight-years-old and we shared stories together. I knew she’d be a willing accomplice. But it had to be ready for her. I wondered about who might be in that private car and what would be a motive powerful enough to drive a quest.

As chance often dictates, an unrelated set of circumstances gave me the motive I’d been looking for. I accepted an assignment to serve as a Senior Curriculum Specialist for the USAID Teacher Education Project in Pakistan, a collaborative venture between The Higher Education Commission of Pakistan, and USAID, with Michigan State University (MSU) as a partner. I began working with MSU. Later, TC became a partner. I stayed on, making trips to Pakistan, usually for three or four weeks every other month or so.  


Here I am meeting with two long-term friends in Pakistan. We’re at one of the many workshops we had with Pakistani University faculty colleagues. An article in the TC News tells of how Hareem (left), who was my student at TC, and I met again in Islamabad. Rana Hussain, gifted curriculum specialist and another Senior Curriculum Specialist, is at the right. Rana is from Karachi and retired from the Institute of Educational Development, Aga Khan University, Karachi.

Early on, a colleague introduced me to a lovely jewelry and curio shop in the Super Market Shopping Center in Islamabad, Sector F6. The Punjab Museum carries artifacts and exquisite jewelry made by local artisans. Over the three years I worked on the project, I bought several gifts at The Punjab Museum. I loved chatting with the young man who ran the store on those rare occasions when the shop happened to be empty. One day he invited me to see something he had just acquired. “What do you think about this?” It was a beautiful egg-shaped stone that had been polished smooth. Inside a bubble of water was trapped in the middle—you could see through the translucent part of the stone. We speculated about the unusual formation and how old the water was—maybe as old as time.  

Water as old as time—when the earth was new. Such water would surely have magical healing powers. The lure of the Fountain of Youth, the quest for eternal life—such is the stuff of quest stories. What might such water do? And what might one give to possess it?  All the disconnected pieces began to come together: a train ride, a private car, a quest.

Next time, I’ll talk about how the setting and characters developed.