Monthly meetings are the backbone of our group, the place where we tend to the business of being writers, where we make time to develop our craft. Whether it is new writing generated or thoughtful analysis and feedback, everyone leaves feeling rejuvenated. The meetings combine just the right amount of comadrazgo, relevance, and rigor to make for a good session.
Our protocols are designed to establish and maintain trust, respect for each other as writers, and a sense that we are in it together, como hermanas. We start by acknowledging and honoring each other the minute we walk through the door–con beso y abrazo. The hostess honors each of us with a very special, home-cooked comidita. The meal sets the tone for the customs, rules and procedures that characterize our group.
The hostess schedules time for announcements, then leads the group in a writing activity. It can be either a prompt, for which she designates a minimum of forty-five minutes for writing and forty-five minutes for feedback or a workshop of existing work. Three or four hours later, the meeting ends with a celebration of our writing–the strong and artful parts as well as the parts that need strengthening.
Valerina Quintana Meeting
Months before my turn to host, I torture myself with what meal to prepare. It becomes homework, looming overhead. Every main course that crosses my path is under scrutiny and consideration, every dessert, hors d’oeuvres and beverage. Pages of recipes are strewn across my counter. Is this the musing of a mad gourmet cook? I am not an avid cook, but I am a great collector of recipes: salads/soups, main courses, desserts, even licuados and smoothies. Volumes of recipes collected over the years are archived with the sole intent of enticing me to enhance my limited culinary skills. Perusing through these recipes for just the right one, I am reminded of what a friend once told me, “If you can read, you can cook.” Alas, as literate as I am, the recipes remain in a file to be opened only when extremely necessary. I realize that food brings people together, that it is the common denominator in any community or culture. I console myself knowing that at least I have the recipes for when I prepare a meal for others.
My Mujeres are my guinea pigs. Food wise, I have experimented on them countless times over the more than two decades that we have been writing together. I am not the only one who experiments on her friends for mealtime. A friend half a world away belongs to a group called the Grateful Guinea Pigs. There are six members in the group and every other month they rotate the host who provides an extravagant meal from pre-dinner drinks to appetizer, soup, main course and dessert. The entire meal must be something the host has never prepared before. It give me some comfort to know that I am not alone in my research and experimenting. What will it be this time?
Sifting through main meal recipes is only part of my research. Is it sad that I refer to meal planning as research? Well, ni modo for this cook. My mind wanders to the bebida. What to drink? This is December, so it should be easy–hot mulled apple cider, eggnog, and jamaica. Stashed in a huge jar in my cupboard is a cache of jamaica blossoms from a local Mexican supermarket. Blossoms, hot water, sugar and ice create a stunning ruby color for the holiday season.. Estella, one of our wine connoisseurs, will bring, well, you guessed it, wine.
After reviewing my countless recipes, on this day I settle for simple–a meal of crockpot lemon chicken breast with garlic, onion, spices, fresh squeezed lemon juice (from my lemon tree), carrots and potatoes. Butter lettuce salad and cherry tomatoes with homemade lemon vinaigrette. For dessert, something for the chocoholic Estella on this her birthday month. In the tradition of honoring the birthday Mujer with a special dessert, I decide on a chocolate flourless cake.
The recipe states, “It is important that not one speck of egg yolk remain in the egg whites, or they will not whip properly.” Oh, no! A bit of yolk has slipped into the egg whites. Well, I will just have to see if it is really true…Noted as part of my research, when it is time for dessert, the cake is light, rich and not ruined by the speck of yolk. I serve Mexican sugar and canned milk with my cafecito of choice, piñon coffee, the deep aroma which always reminds me of my hometown in southern Colorado. After everyone has eaten, a third of the cake remains. Estella happily takes it home. Even if it were not her birthday, she would be the one to claim the chocolate.
At the same time that I consider what food will nourish my Mujeres, I am also thinking of the prompt. Will it be easy to understand? Will it be a good writing exercise? I want my instructions to be clear and concise, so I review it from beginning to end.
As we gather at the table, I give each of the Mujeres six small strips of paper which they deposit into the appropriate pile.
- First pile–each Mujer deposits two strips: Who + Adjective.
- Second pile–each Mujer deposits two strips: Verb + Object.
- Third pile–each Mujer deposits two strips: Why + phrase.
Someone asks, “Can we include an animal instead of a person?” The answer is no, but the Mujeres will do what they want anyway. Siempre hay un rebelde.
I scramble all the strips onto the table and ask everyone to choose three. “Write from those strips,” I say, “and add a color.”
Excerpts of the Writing
During Hurricane Andrew’s evacuation, Daniela, the barrio’s elegant queen, grabbed a bag of romance novels, her Walkman, Gloria Estefan CD and an Almond Joy chocolate bar. With this emergency kit, the fifteen-year-old stormed out of the mobile home and lifted Peluche, her brown, droopy-eared hound, and climbed into the school bus which was driving neighbors to the shelter. As the vehicle raced along, the inner storm rose.
What am I going to do? Daniela thought. The pregnancy test flashed positive blue inside her pocket. Lightning spoke; its sharp, loud crack twisted her intestines. She could hear Ulbicia, her stepmother, screech, “Esto no tiene nombre. Te pasa por mensa. I told you not to open your legs. Deja que tu padre se entere.” The storm’s low rumbles made her heart skip.
Maybe the wind will blow the bitch away, she thought.
It was early morning, that time between darkness and light, so easily confused with twilight. Noche, my black house cat, scratched and whined to come inside. I awoke suddenly and thought there must be something wrong because, coming or going, Noche usually softly butts his head on the door until I come around.
He whined louder this time and began clawing at the door. Frowning, I tossed the bed covers aside and hurried to let him in. Noche dashed past me to the kitchen and crashed into the Christmas tree on his way into my bedroom. He skidded under my bed and there he remained. No amount of coaxing could lure him out.
With trepidation, I opened the door to see what had disturbed him.
He had taught her everything he and every Greek before him knew of cultivating olives. For instance, that the briny air made them fat and juicy. That the ones facing the sea are happier. That you should start the harvest no later than November 25, St. Katerina’s day.
Today, the workers set out early to harvest the last remaining olives. From the balcony, she saw them drive away the noisy mechanical harvesters. The cobalt blue skies reminded her of the day her father died ten years ago. The day he died, he said, “These groves have been here since the days of Odysseus. They know things.” Mara had been happy to carry on his legacy. If he returned today, he would not recognize the place. The machinery. The computerized irrigation system. Trained staff. Their own mill. She had done well. He would be proud. Now, she had no more excuses.